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“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
While the famous lines by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty continue to proclaim the welcome offered to immigrants coming to the United States, the reality has always been somewhat different. Even though potential immigrants traveling in first- or second-class often managed to enter the country with only a rudimentary assessment, passengers traveling in steerage were processed through the immigration station at New York Harbour's Ellis Island. First opened in 1892, the inpection stations of Ellis Island acted as the central processing point for millions of immigrants arriving from Europe and other parts of the world Thorough medical examinations by physicians appointed by the Public Health Service were required to check for contagious diseases or other medical problems and immigration officials often relied on medical evidence to weed out "unsuitable" candidates. Based on an 1882 immigration law, any immigrant deemed to be "likely to become a public charge" could be blocked from entering the United States. That included any medical deformity or condition that would make an immigrant unable to earn a living. While many physicians objected to their medical findings being used to screen potential immigrants, immigration officials often justified their decision to exclude "unsuitable" immigrants.
In that same legislation, "imbeciles" and the "feeble-minded" were included as being unfit to enter the United States. Not only were the feebleminded considered to be prone to various social problems including drug abuse and crime, but they also pose a daner to the genetic health of the nation (due to their inferior genes being passed on to future generations). Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were regarded as a particular concern for Americans worried about the eugenics of immigration.
Due to widespread concerns about "feebleminded" immigrants, having the physicians who examined immigrants test for low intelligence seemed to make good sense to the immigration officials and politicians imposing limits on who could be allowed into the countery. Except for the problem of how to test for intelllectual problems, that is. Though early intelligence scales had already been developed for use with children needing special education, providing something equivalent for rimmigrants, many of whom could not even speak Enlish. was more difficult.
It was psychologist, Henry Goddard, who first traveled to Europe in 1908 to learn how to use the new intelligence test first developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon. After returning to the United States, Goddard translated and revised Binet's test for use at the training school where he worked. He also developed an early classification system for the intellectually impaired children at his school, i.e., any children with an intelligence quotient (IQ) of less than 70. For children with a score between 51 and 70, the term moron was used. All children with scores btween 26 and 50 were labelled imbeciles and any child with an IQ of 25 or less was labelled an idiot. Though these are considered offensive terms today, Goddard's classification system matched his own theories about eugenics andhow low intelligence should be dealt with.
Goddard also established his credentials as an authority on feeble-mindedness through two well-known books highlighting the genetic risks associated with allowing people of low intelligence to breed. His 1912 book, The Kallikak Family, traced the genealogy of two branches of one family, one "feeble-minded" and the other normal. Though modern reevaluation of Goddard's findings suggest that Goddard understated the role of environmental factors, his book proved to be highly influential, especially with early eugenicists such as Madison Grant and Charles B. Davenport.
Given the concerns over allowing potentially feeble-minded immigrants into the country, it was not surprising that Henry Goddard was invited by the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island to advise staff on the best way of assessing immigrant intellligence. Though Goddard's initial impression was that concerns about feeble-minded immigrants were likely exaggerated, he conducted tests of his version of Alfred Binet's test for use with immigrants. Comparing his own test results with what immigration doctors were reporting, Goddard concluded that his own trained staff were more accurate in detecting immigrants with low intelligence. On that basis, he recommended that Congress allocate funds to provide Ellis Island with staff trained in measuring feeble-mindedness.
Many of the immigration doctors themselves objected to the use of Goddard's intelligence tests to weed out low-IQ immigrants. One of them, Howard Andrew Knox, published an article in 1913 in the Journal of the American Medical Association which pointed out how inappropriate it was to use tests developed for schoolchildren on immigrants with limited English skills. As he pointed out:
To the uninitiated using routine tests for defectives nearly all the peasants from certain European countries appear to be of the moron type; but of course this is a fallacy. If these peasants are questioned about conditions existing in the land from which they come most of them will show average intelligence.
But Knox and his colleagues were still eugenics supporters themslves and endorsed the political call to week out the "feeble-minded". As he stated in another article published that same year, it was more important to identify morons than people who were insane since morons would "immediately start a line of defectives whose progeny, like the brook, will go on forever, branching off here in an imbecile and there in an epileptic, costing the country millions of dollars in court fees and incarceration expenses." All that remained was to come up with a reliable method of identifying these mental defectives.
When Goddard's researchers visited Ellis Island in 1913 to test 165 immigrants, they still hadto decide how to interpret those results. When Goddard finally published his findings, he stated that a disproportionately high number of immigrants were identified as mentally defective. In talking about his findings, Goddard stated that "one can hardly escape the conviction that the intelligence of the average ‘third class’ immigrant is low, perhaps of moron grade." He charitably suggested that this was due to the poor environments from which they had come rather than their genetics though.
But the controversy was only just beginning...
To be continued
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