Conditions of Entry and the Quota System

When Malta had sent almost three thousand of its emigrants to the USA between April 1, 1920 and March 31, 192 1, that meant that almost half of the emigrant classes had deliberately chosen that country as the land of their future. Undoubtedly such preference for America would have been translated into larger numbers still had the American Congress not put a check on the numbers of aliens entering the country.

Before the legislation of May, 1921, Maltese emigrants who wished to settle in the USA had to satisfy a number of requirements:

  1. Ordinary emigrants had to produce a clean Police Conduct Sheet accompanied by a satisfactory Health Certificate from a qualified doctor.
  2. Those who had previously been deported from the' U.S. could not apply for entry before one full year had elapsed from the date of deportation.
  3. All persons over sixteen years of age had to pass a test in reading a language or a dialect. Maltese was recognised as valid for this Literacy Test. Some people were exempted from the Test:
    1. Those who were physically incapable of reading.
    2. Those who already had American citizens willing to help them. This exemption applied to fathers and grandfathers if over fifty-five years of age; wives, mothers, grandmothers; unmarried or widowed daughters.
    3. Persons who had resided continuously in the USA for five years and who had not been absent from that country for more than six months from the date of departure.
  4. No emigrant would be given a visa if he tried to enter the country by reason of any offer, solicitation, promise or agreement, expressed or implied, to work in the USA
  5. Emigrants to the USA were to purchase a through transportation ticket valid for the entire journey, and on landing in an American port, they were required to be in possession of a sufficient sum to cover all travelling expenses to their final destination. They were also expected to possess a sum of money which was enough to maintain them until such time as they might become self-supporting. Such a sum varied according to the distance which the migrants intended to travel and in accordance with other conditions surrounding individual cases. In respect of landing money an amount of about fifty dollars was considered as the minimum required.
  6. Persons whose tickets or passage money were offered by another person, or who were assisted by others to proceed to the USA, were to be denied entry.
  7. Children under sixteen years of age who were unaccompanied, or were not going to stay with their parents, were not allowed entry except in special circumstances.
  8. Maltese permanently domiciled, but temporarily absent from the USA, unless such absence exceeded the period of six months, were usually allowed entry on production Of convincing proof of domicile within the meaning of the law and on production of a sworn affidavit.

Having satisfied those conditions to obtain entry through the American Golden Door, the immigrant had not only to face rampant prejudice but had also to keep his eyes open against those who were willing to make a quick dollar at the expense of these newly arrived strangers. The New York Evening Post warned in 1920, about those who watched intently the immigrants as they were released from Ellis Island in order "to mulct and exploit the innocent immigrant to the U.S. ". The newspaper complained about the practice of tipping petty officials at Immigration off ices to let relatives and friends pass without due delay.

Another aspect of exploitation of immigrants was the corruption of some officials who themselves asked for exorbitant fees to issue worthless passports. Once the immigrant was on the streets of New York he had to face greedy taxi drivers who sensed that strangers were an easy prey to them. The New York Evening Post also complained about landlords who provided accommodation at excessive charges.

One very serious charge made by that newspaper was about some people who claimed to work for banks and who pretended to help aliens to send their remittances to their dependents. According to the newspaper such people were to be found wherever a large immigrant colony existed. They were unscrupulous at fleecing the unwary. Exorbitant charges were made in order to transmit immigrant's money to his old country. Very often no such money ever reached its destination.

Another charge was made against some corrupt men of the law... "Lawyers also indulge occasionally -in the mulcting of the immigrant or his relatives. The usual procedure is for the lawyer to give word that admission has been granted to an immigrant who had been detained at port, to pretend to the anxious relative that he had brought it about, and to make his charge accordingly".

Finally the newspaper referred to a recent scandal when a firm gave a fictitious Boston address and sent out thousands of letters to Italians residing in the Middle West. The letter contained a request to each immigrant to forward six dollars to cover express postage on a parcel presumably sent by relatives in Italy. The news-paper claimed that thousands of dollars were accumulated by the said bogus firm before the fraud was discovered.

The more human side of the history of emigration came out in the stories the emigrants themselves had to say about themselves. One typical case history was that of Steve Pace who related his story on November 30, 1983.

"I tried to reach America as a stowaway but was caught while the ship was still in Grand Harbour. I was seventeen then. When my father and mother realised that there was no stopping me, they decided to give me 29. In all I carried on me 40 when I finally sailed from Grand Harbour some time early in 1920. There were about eighty other men going to the USA

I was able to read and write and I knew a little English. My companions and myself left Malta for Syracuse on the ferry and then travelled all the way by train to the French port of Cherbourg. That journey took five days. From Cherbourg we went on a ship called the "Adriatic" which carried us to New York. That crossing took nine days. In New York we were taken to Ellis Island where they fixed letters of the alphabet on us. They examined us for trachoma and our general health ' The whole thing took about five hours. I think I was able to pass quickly because I knew some English and I had enough money on me .

From New York I took a train to Detroit. I wanted to go to Detroit because I knew that I had an uncle there, but I had no idea where he lived and he knew nothing about my arrival. In New York and in Detroit I was met by no one. However, as soon as I arrived in Detroit, I started looking for Maltese immigrants. After four days one of them told me where to find my uncle.

My first job was with Chrysler. I worked in the Paint Shop but this job lasted only six weeks because most of us workers were sacked. This meant I was two years out of work.

During my first two years in America I never wrote back home because I did not have the money to buy stamps with. Eventually my mother contacted the British Consul in Detroit to see what had happened to me. The Consul found me out and he gave me some stamps. I was then so hard up that I couldn't afford a pair of shoes. Most Maltese were in the same predicament. At first we were given tickets to buy our groceries, but then they stopped giving such tickets to those of us who were single.

Few Maltese had steady jobs then. Those who worked sometimes would give us ten cents to buy two eggs. We lived in a lodging house which was owned by a Maltese known to us as Pawlu ii-Zghajjar or Tiny Paul. He hailed from Qormi. Twenty-four men lived in that house. We ate spaghetti for our only meal and sometimes we were given a loaf of bread by the Salvation Army. When one of us had a cigarette, we would share it.

Winters in Michigan were much colder than in Malta. At times the temperatures stayed below zero for weeks. For one whole year we had no heating in our lodging house. Most of us were young and single and we were able to survive.

Fortunately relations between Maltese them-selves were friendly. We helped each other when we could. Some would lend money without charging any interest. The Maltese got on well with other immigrants. Except on one occasion when the Irish Gang of Fifth Street attacked the Maltese. I think the fight ended in a draw.

Next the Irish attacked the Chinese, but the Chinese were prepared for the fight and obtained an easy victory over the Irish.

I remember one fact very clearly. It was 1932. I had been waiting for hours to register for work. It was snowing very hard. After waiting for some hours someone came out of the office and said that work would be offered only to those who were American citizens. At that time I still had my British passport, so I said I was American and gave them the address of my American girl friend. I got a job.

Later I opened a grocery shop. When Prohibition was lifted I opened a Beer Garden where most of my patrons were Irish. Business was good and after the Depression I did very well. In 1935 I went back to Malta for the first time since 1920. Since then I was able to visit Malta regularly. In 1974, after fifty-four years living in the USA, I decided to retire to Malta. Since that year I have been going regularly to the USA where my son lives. In spite of the hardship endured, I am proud of my American citizenship and I am glad that I emigrated when I was only a youngster. I can say that most Maltese who lived in Detroit have done very well for themselves".

Steve Pace died in Malta two years after giving this interview.

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

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