Intellectually Disabled Children and the 1924 Immigration Act

In December of 1922 and January 1923, members of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization met to consider “the admission of mentally defective children” as they worked to write and enact what would become the 1924 Immigration Act. Albert Johnson (R-WA), architect of the 1924 Act (which became known as the Johnson-Reed Act) chaired the Committee. The members considered two bills. A narrow one would allow the Secretary of Labor to admit a single individual, Jacob Kalaf. The son of a wealthy Syrian immigrant family, Jacob had been diagnosed as feebleminded and was living in an institution while his family worked to have him admitted to the United States. The broader bill permitted the Secretary of Labor to admit a number of alien minors who arrived during and since 1914. If passed, the two bills would shift decision-making power from the Commissioner General of Immigration to the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary could then overrule the port inspectors who had excluded the young people because of their diagnoses of mental deficiency. As historian Douglas C. Baynton observed of immigration restriction, it was “the least ambiguous expression of the growing aversion to disability.” The hearings made that aversion and the reasons for it very clear.1

What was behind these bills? The hazards of wartime transport prevented intellectually disabled young people from being deported. Most lived under bond with their families and underwent periodic reexaminations by government doctors after the war as authorities moved to deport them. During this period, their families, neighbors, community supporters, ethnic organizations, and local newspapers fought their expulsion and pushed for their legal admission. 

Chairman Johnson complained during the hearings that, “Under the law as it is we are beset with appeals and newspaper stories of divided families.”2 He was correct. For example, while federal officials worked to deport Patsy Zambardi, an Italian boy, deemed by port authorities to be “feebleminded,” a front-page article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 1923 had the sympathetic title, “Patsy Zambardi, 13, May Be Torn From Home and Deported.”3 In Syracuse, the local Hearst paper supported Sammy Goldman. Goldman’s Congressman, Walter W. Magee (R-NY), put Goldman’s case before the Committee after being pressed to do so by M. Louise Hawksworth of the Americanization League, an association organized to bring members of different racial an ethnic groups into the community. The Syracuse paper followed Sammy’s case and documented the support of his school principal and the Governor of New York, among others. Other papers remained neutral in tone, such as a New York Times article about Joseph Schwartz that noted the similarity of his case to that of Sammy Goldman.4 But, of course, not all coverage favored those seeking admission. A story in the Saturday Evening Post in 1923 titled “Ellis Island Sob Stories” noted the plethora of “heart-rendering” immigration stories in the daily newspapers.5

In Olean, New York, the Times Herald ran numerous stories about Paula Patton while her Congressman Daniel A. Reed (R-NY) (no relation to Senator Reed for whom the Johnson-Reed Act is named) worked on her behalf, at the urging of local women activists. Paula, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania had arrived at Ellis Island in 1914. After inspectors diagnosed her as an “imbecile,” she was sent back to Europe on a ship that was halted en route due to the outbreak of World War I. When it returned to port, Paula went to live with her family on a bond and never legally entered the United States. Periodically, Paula would be ordered to Ellis Island to be deported only to have her removal halted due to the efforts of her local supporters and legal team. In addition to objecting to tearing her from her family, they argued that her diagnosis was incorrect. They alleged Paula was unable to speak because of a bout of polio and thus wrongly labeled as intellectually disabled. Paula’s supporters included Clara Kinley, a Republican clubwoman and community activist in Olean, and Mrs. Walter W. Steele, a Buffalo clubwoman with local and state political leaders on her behalf.  They also marshaled support from women’s club members and prominent businessmen to secure the right for Paula to remain with her parents and siblings. Local allies of other individuals in similar situations also waged battles against deportation appealing to the federal courts and to Presidents Harding and Coolidge. It soon became clear to them that the deportations could be halted only with a change in the law.6

The legislators who introduced bills in support of their constituents faced fierce headwinds as they navigated the committee hearings. There was the matter of precedence, as immigration law rested on barring admission of any individual likely to become a public charge. Thus, Congressman John E. Raker (D-CA) asked, “If you start admitting children of this kind, where are you going to stop?”7

When Congressman Magee spoke on behalf of Sammy Goldman, Chairman Johnson, pressed him with a statement encapsulating the eugenic and economic reasons for exclusion: “If this boy should be admitted by a special act, the people of the city of Syracuse and in the vicinity of Syracuse would be highly pleased, but the people in all the rest of New York would be inflamed with indignation as to the possibility of the addition of that burden to the taxation of the people of New York, brought about in opposition to the insanity board.”8 To prevent this, the proposed legislation permitted the Secretary of Labor to require sterilization prior to admitting any of the young people. Congressman Isaac V. McPherson, (R-MO), author of the broader bill, confirmed his support for the existing law: “The reason we do not admit the mentally deficient is because we know that mental deficiency or disease is transmissible, and that their admission would lower the average of citizenship here.”9 He thus supported allowing the Secretary of Labor to require sterilization as a condition of entry.

The alarmist rhetoric ricocheting through the hearing room suggested that the Committee members feared the possibility of a change in the law would lead to a nation flooded with damaged immigrant youngsters. In fact, the numbers who would possibly gain entry under the proposed bill were exceedingly small. Chairman Johnson initially suggested it was 200; Congressman Roach later testified that it amounted to 112, including adults, possibly meaning those who had reached adulthood while under bond. Ultimately W. W. Husband, Commissioner of Immigration, found only 46 individuals eligible for consideration under the proposed law and offered a few details about each case. The would-be Americans were, in many cases, doubly handicapped in the eyes of the legislators. Both their disabilities and their origins marked them as unwanted. Thirty of forty-six were listed as “Hebrew,” eight were Italian, two were “Spanish” (from Cuba and Panama) two were Syrian, and one each came from Russia and Czechoslovakia. Many had warrants issued for their deportation and had undergone medical re-examination at Ellis Island, where 42 of the 46 had first entered the United States; a few could not be found and served. At the time of the hearings, the 46 lived all over the United States: eighteen in New York, six in Pennsylvania, five in Illinois, four in New Jersey, and the others in Missouri, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Nebraska, California, and Minnesota. Their continued residence in the United States was thus a nationwide rather than a regional matter.10

The questions from Committee members included the individuals’ diagnoses and the threat they posed by potentially propagating others like themselves as well as standing law suggested the 46 had little hope of being legally admitted to the United States. Yet, they gained admission. Written into the 1924 Immigration Act was the often-ignored Section 14, which permitted that the

Secretary of Labor may, under such conditions and restrictions as to support and care as he may deem necessary, permit permanently to remain in the United States, any alien child who, when under sixteen years of age was heretofore temporarily admitted to the United States and who is now within the United States and either of whose parents is a citizen of the United States.           

The process by which Section 14 came to be included in the Act is not clear. It  appears to have emerged from the House-Senate Conference Committee that finalized the law. The House Committee records include an April 1924 telegram from the Commissioner of Mental Diseases for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to Chairman Johnson, protesting a provision in the Senate bill admitting alien children under sixteen. Johnson replied that the telegram arrived during the House Senate conference and that the House was unable to have the provision removed. He added that it would only allow thirty or forty alien youths to enter the United States. Johnson concluded his letter observing that, “if the new bill is signed by the President and works at all, there will be mighty few more of these dumped on the doorstep of Uncle Sam.”11 Mighty few were. As Johnson hoped, the President signed the law. After enactment of the law, the Secretary of Labor granted many of the excluded disabled young people including Jacob, Paula, and Sammy permission to enter the United States.

The significance of Section 14 of the 1924 Immigration Act rests in part in its demonstration that parental, ethnic group, and citizen advocacy on behalf of children labeled mentally impaired began well before the larger, more successful movements in the later part of the twentieth century. Inclusion of Section 14 also suggests that eugenic theories and practices such as sterilization and institutionalization did not always supersede people’s understanding that disabled youngsters in their communities could and should remain at home with their families. Breaking up households and deporting disabled children evidently violated some individuals’ and communities’ sense of decency and elicited support in the press. Even as Congress passed increasingly strict laws to close the door of entry to those deemed a threat to the nation by virtue of their disabilities or countries of origin, others moved to protect the few disabled children who arrived in the United States during the wartime emergency. The families and their allies marshaled legal and political resources and took their battles to all three branches of the federal government and ultimately pierced a tiny hole in the legal wall erected by immigration opponents.

—Janet Golden is Professor Emerita at Rutgers University and co-coordinator of SwingLeft Philadelphia. Her most recent book is Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought Americans Into the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2018). This article is part of a new project on the 1924 Immigration Act and disability.

  1. Douglas C. Baynton, Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics (Chicago, 2016), 4.
  2. “Admission of Mentally Defective Children: Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives, 67th Congress, 4th Sess. On H.R. 12470 and 12479, December 5, 1922 and January 16, 1923.” (Washington, D.C., 1923) p. 233.
  3. “Patsy Zambardi May be Torn from Home and Deported,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 10, 1923 p. 1.
  4. “Another Boy Faces Deportation Inquiry,” New York Times, May 8, 1923, p. 23.
  5. Ernest Greenwood, “Ellis Island Sob Stories,” Saturday Evening Post, July 7, 1923, pp. 25+
  6. Janet Golden and John T. Duffy, “Normal Enough”: Paula Patton, Intellectually Disabled Immigrant Children, and the 1924 Immigration Act. Journal of Social History. January 2019. doi:10.1093/jsh/shy098.
  7. “Admission of Mentally Defective Children,” p. 198.
  8. Ibid, p. 222.
  9. Ibid, p. 200.
  10. We calculated the numbers in each category from the records of the 46 individuals in the report. “Admission of Mentally Defective Children,” pp. 206-16.
  11. George H. Kline to Albert Johnson, April, 1924 and Albert Johnson to George H. Kline, May 22 1924, Folder H.R. 67 A-F 18.4, Library of Congress.

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