The Great Depression

Between the years 1919 and 1921, the Maltese had expressed their attraction to the Golden Door of America by emigrating in their thousands to that prosperous part of the New World. On May 19, 192 1, President Warren G. Harding signed his Quota Law and that disturbed the easy flow of migration from Malta's shores to those of the USA Although the restrictions were initially very severe, constant representations by the Maltese authorities did eventually manage to obtain some relief especially for those members of families which were caught unawares by that piece of legislation.

The quota system was not the only obstacle to the flow of migration to the USA After the great economic expansion which followed the First World War, the American economy was showing signs of stagnation and decay. Protectionism was barring the entry of American products into foreign markets and by 1929 there was concern about the serious disparity between a strong production and a weak consumption. America was producing more than could be consumed.

The crash of the Stock Market in 1929 led to a serious crisis in the banking system. Depositors lost their savings and workers lost their jobs. Some thirteen million Americans, nearly one worker in three, lost their jobs. City dwellers were in terrible distress. Many of these were immigrants who had decided to flee hunger and starvation in their countries, only to be faced with the same destiny in the land of opportunity.

Immigrants suffered because they were new to the country and had few contacts which would offer help and protection. Maltese newspapers of the period printed stories of hardship about immigrants having to wait for hours in interminable bread lines.

By 1930 emigration from Malta to the USA had been practically halted except for a few migrants who wished to join their families. Later on, Malta was experiencing a migration in reverse when a number of migrants from Detroit and New York returned home.

These returned emigrants were broken men. They had returned to seek the security of their families and friends rather than face the rigours of the Great Depression. One commentator writing in a Maltese newspaper in 1932 put down his feelings in stark language: "The tide is swelling and it would not be long before we are called upon to give accommodation and provide work for many of our people returning from America". One of those who came back was Cesare Lancellotti who in 1921 had managed to beat immigration restrictions by his gift of piano playing. Cesare and his family were not able to beat the Depression and decided to leave America.

The Maltese living in Detroit and New York fared badly. They were city people with no jobs. Some societies organised help for the unemployed. They collected money for food and to provide the destitute with clothing. Joseph Azzopardi of New York said that his Club in Astoria was distributing food to needy Maltese, but he complained that the Depression had cast a general gloom over the whole city of New York. The recent kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, Charles Augustus, did not help to relieve that mood.

In October 1930 a new Consular Policy was adopted which gave American representatives abroad the power to refuse applications for visas on two main grounds: First, if an alien disclosed that he made previous arrangements to get a job. This was against Contract Labor Law which refused immigrants sponsored by associations. Second, if an applicant was considered to be a potential charge on the State.

Intending emigrants who applied for a visa had to deposit 400 to their credit in an American bank. Wives and children who wished to join their husbands and fathers had to provide satisfactory evidence that their relatives in America were in fact employed and had to indicate their wages or salaries.

The Consul also expected to see all bank documents which showed what amount of dollars was deposited by those Maltese who intended to send for their dependents in Malta.

At the time the new Consular Policy came into effect there were 455 men, 91 women and 46 children waiting to join their relatives in the USA The rate of returning emigrants from the USA was high. Within the ten year period, April 1, 1921, and March 31, 1931, there were 2,891 Maltese who had emigrated to the USA Of these 2,188 came back, most of them beaten by the Depression.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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