Weeding Out The Immigrants (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

After the researchers visited Ellis Island in 1913 to test 165 immigrants, it was still up to Goddard to decide how to interpret those results.   When he finally published his findings, Goddard stated that a disproportionately high number of immigrants were identified as mentally defective.    In talking about his findings, he stated that "one can hardly escape the conviction that the intelligence of the average ‘third class’ immigrant is low, perhaps of moron grade" though he charitably suggested that this was due to the poor environments from which they had come rather than their genetics.

Despite the controversy, there was enough political support for the idea of  IQ screening for immigrants, except for the pesky problem of language.   Since the Binet scales were primarily verbal in nature, using them for immigrants with limited English was a challenge that needed to be overcome.   Even relying on interpreters proved risky as the interpreters themselves often had difficulty understanding the concepts used in testing.

Fortunately, there was already a potential solution available.  Psychologists working with hearing impaired patients and children with language deficits had developed specialized performance tests relying on nonverbal skills.   Many of these tests involved “formboards” requiring test-takers to fit geometric figures into similarly-shaped impressions in the board.   The most famous of these was developed by Edoard Seguin and it was already being used for nonverbal performance testing in children with language needs.   Other tests included jigsaw puzzles and “picture formboards” that attempted to reduce verbal testing as much as possible. 

The doctors stationed at Ellis Island  incorporated many of these non-verbal tests into the battery used with new immigrants and also developed several new tests as well.  Howard Knox developed two non-verbal tests which he described in as 1913 article.  The first of these was a “Visual Comparison Test”  using line drawings to match for size and complexity.  The second one, the "Knox Cube Imitation Test", required test-takers to tap a series of cubes in a sequence shown to them by the tester.    

In a 1914 paper, Knox wrote that he had conducted the tests on "over 4,000 suspected defectives in the last eighteen months and many more made by my associates ... all were considered sufficiently near the required standard to be allowed to pass, except 400 certified as feeble-minded and (in a few cases) as imbeciles."    Different versions were used including an "Imbecile test" for people wth a  a mental age of less than six.   There was also a "Moron test"  which could only be solved by someone with a mental age less than ten.    Knox recommended that these tests be given several times to ensure that immigrants didn't pass the test by accident.

Since the number of potential immigrants identified as feeble-minded was far greater than what the doctors had detected before the intelligence testing began, this was regarded as proof for the value of psychological testing at Ellis Island.   Still, Howard Knox repeatedly stresed the difficulty involved due to the limited English skills and cultural differences.   To minimize these problems, he developed a test procedure to be used on immigrants which included a careful interview to ensure that they had basic cognitive skills.   In most cases, immigrants received only a cursory examination with only those failing the interview being passed on for more in-depth testing.

Though Knox had left Ellis Island by 1916, he continued to publish in various eugenic and public health journals and played a role in expanding the definition of mental deficiency to include paupers, criminals, epileptics, and other "persons possessing stigmata and deformities."   He also argued that male immigrants should meet fitness standards at least equal to what would be demanded by the U.S. Army.    His tests, which were later produced by commercial test publishers, would become  standard use in screening immigrants.

By 1921, the U.S. government established a quota system and shifted responsibility for immmigrant screening to U.S. embassies or consulates around the world.   While Ellis Island continued to be 170px-Ellis_island_immigration_museum_entrance[1]used for immigrant detention and deportations (including thousands of "enemy aliens" being held there during World War II), the facility was finally closed in the 1950s.   It eventually reopened to visitors as a tourist site in 1976 and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990.   Visitors to the museum can still see many of Knox's intelligence tests on display, along with other reminders of the countless thousands of immigrants who passed through the system during its heyday.

So what can I say about Howard Knox?   While his intelligence tests had a significant influence on the early history of intelligence testing, his name has been largely forgotten except by psychology historians.   Many of the nonverbal test elements he developed continue to be used in different intelligence tests and he is rightly regarded as a pioneer in non-verbal intelligence testing.  Still, while some of his ideas about how language and cultural barriers can interfere with intelligence testing are valid enough, his beliefs about eugenics are hard to defend.   He was certainly not the only eugenicist of that era though but the critical role he played in how potential immigrants would be screened made him one of the most influential.

As for the human cost of Knox's work, that is harder to determine.   We will likely never know what became of  the many immigrants identified as feeble-minded by Knox and his fellow testers.   Certainly many of these same "feeble-minded" immigrants were routinely allowed into the country before intelligence testing became the norm and without the dire predictions of the eugenicists coming to pass.   That a disproportionately high number of immigrants regarded as being inferior came from non-English speaking backgrounds and cultures only helped reinforce the prevailing belief in the genetic superiority of "true" Americans.   

Along with rigid quota systems in place for potential immigrants, the eugenics movement would claim other victims as well.   Many of the same policies advocated by Knox and his fellow eugenicists would be used to implement compulsory sterilization on thousands of "inferior" men, women, and children in the United States and Canada.  It would take decades, and the horrendous example of the Holocaust in Europe, to eventually overturn the eugenics laws although many still remained in place until the 1960s or later. 

The price of these laws, including restitution payments made to the victims, would ensure that their influence would continue even today.   In an era of anti-immigration furour and calls for deadly force to be used to prevent even immigrant children from entering the country,  the xenophobia that turned Ellis Island into a proving ground for racial  politics a hundred years ago is still alive and well today.


Related Stories

  • Does Walking Speed Predict Dementia?
  • Is There a Link between Dual Trauma and Domestic Violence?
  • Carrying Naloxone


The information provided on the PsyWeb.com is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of PsyWeb.com nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979