Amid Crisis in New York, a Visionary Immigration Plan From 1907 Invites a New Look

Where is the Jacob Schiff of 2023?

Harvard Art Museums via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Jacob Schiff by Louis Loeb, 1903. Harvard Art Museums via Wikimedia Commons

The Democratic politicians with authority over New York City are pleading with each other for help in solving the city’s refugee crisis. They’d be better off looking to history — and to the private sector.

The mayor, Eric Adams, says that more than 104,000 migrants have arrived in the city since spring 2022 and that housing them could cost the city more than $12 billion over three years. He asked the governor for money and for help moving some of the migrants out of the city to other parts of the state.

The governor, Kathy Hochul, wrote President Biden a letter asking him to allow the migrants to work. She also asked Mr. Biden for federal money to pay for healthcare, transportation, housing, and education for the migrants. Ms. Hochul blamed both the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and the federal government. “This crisis originated with the federal government, and it must be resolved through the federal government. The borders and decisions about who can work are solely determined by the federal government,” she said.

A lawyer for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, Joshua Goldfein, was quoted by Bloomberg News as summing up the situation: “You have three different levels of government here that each has some responsibility, and inevitably they want the other level of government to do more.” 

A Sienna Poll found 82 percent of New Yorkers see the migrant influx as a serious problem.

If Mr. Biden doubles down on the “Biden to New York: Drop Dead” policy, Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul might just get desperate enough to back a restoration of President Trump with a mandate to finish the wall along the southern border. 

What Mr. Adams, Ms. Hochul, and Mr. Biden are missing is that not every problem calls for a government solution. Sure, border control and the legal status of migrants are core government responsibilities. But when government is overwhelmed or floundering, as is the case here, New York has a proud history of private philanthropic leadership. 

In 1907, 1.25 million immigrants poured in to Ellis Island — a flood that makes the 104,000 souls that Mayor Adams is complaining about seem like a mere trickle. Then as now, civic-minded New Yorkers were concerned about the newcomers having difficulty finding housing and jobs, and about the strains that the influx would place on the city’s social services and municipal departments. 

At least one visionary philanthropist at the time didn’t sit back waiting for the politicians to solve the problem on their own. Jacob Schiff, himself an immigrant to America from Germany, had become a phenomenally successful financier at the head of the firm Kuhn, Loeb. That investment house financed railroads, telephone and electric companies, and the government of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. When it came to the immigrant influx, Schiff was the Eric Adams of his day, an advocate of the idea that it’d be better for both the immigrants and the city if the newcomers spread out more widely rather than clustering densely within the city.

Schiff hatched a plan to divert some of the Jewish immigrants from Europe away from New York City and toward Galveston, Texas. 

“Diffuse Immigrants, Says Jacob H. Schiff,” was a New York Times headline from July 19, 1909, over an article reporting, “He thought that the Jewish immigrants should be encouraged to land at other ports than those of the North Atlantic Coast, that they might the better be distributed over the country.” Schiff said the conditions of “continuously growing misery” in New York appeared “almost unbearable.” He said they had created problems “which are becoming well-nigh impossible of solution.” 

Schiff said the immigrants should be encouraged to land directly “into those sections of the country where opportunities are yet many, where the cost of living is moderate, where nature and an uncontaminated atmosphere tend to build up constitutions instead of undermining and preparing them for the hospital and home for the chronic invalid, as is the case in New York.” 

The Jewish Herald of Houston, Texas, reported on the front page of its October 29, 1909, issue about a meeting in London of a newly formed “Galveston Committee” of which Schiff was the chairman and Cyrus L. Sulzberger was vice chairman and treasurer. Schiff expressed hope that 200 immigrants a month “could be properly distributed and placed.” 

Sulzberger, president of the United Hebrew Charities, was named by Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York in 1910 to be a member of the State Commission on the Distribution of Population, appointed to investigate the causes of the “decrease of the rural population of the state” and the “congestion, overcrowded dwellings and poverty” in New York City. The committee was charged with “formulating such measures to promote a more normal distribution of population.”

A 2016 account by Wendy Berghoffen says Schiff gave $500,000 to the project — roughly $16 million in today’s dollars. Schiff also advanced the cause of diverting immigrants from New York City with money that had been donated by Maurice de Hirsch, who in 1891 established a $2.4 million fund — roughly $81 million in today’s dollars — aimed at promoting the settlement of European Jews on American farms.

Schiff was foresighted enough to realize that the consequence of failing to distribute the immigrant population would be a political backlash that left Jews and other would-be immigrants trapped overseas just as they were most in need of an escape to freedom. “If we want to keep open the opportunity for many more of our coreligionists to come into this blessed land, it is high time that we stop and consider what can be done to bring about a better distribution,” he said

Alas, Schiff’s efforts, while noble, were insufficient, and for that and many other reasons, the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed the Golden Door shut. Those of us who believe that immigrants strengthen America may hope that a modern Schiff arises to help the mayor with what Mr. Adams is calling a “federal decompression strategy to ensure the flow of asylum seeker arrivals is more fairly distributed.” The non-Trump politicians don’t seem to be able to handle it without private sector leadership.

The New York Sun

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