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Giving Galveston Its Day in the Sun

Of all the current national issues that seem to vex us a lot, immigration is surely at or close to the top of the list. Some Americans extend a welcome hand to those who would like to call the United States their home; others turn their backs on them, and still others talk incessantly about boundaries and fences, driver’s licenses, Social Security and workers’ visas. In each instance, what’s most striking is the constancy of the discussion: Immigration has long been a hotly contested issue. Over the years, for every American who spoke lyrically of the potential that would accrue were the nation to welcome immigration, an equal number warned darkly of its consequences.

But some citizens actually did more than talk about immigration; they did something about it. Way back when, in 1907, a number of American Jewish philanthropists, prompted by the redoubtable Jacob Schiff, sought to ameliorate the lot of would-be immigrants by pointing them in the right direction: away from overcrowded and blighted urban areas and toward the wide-open spaces of the West, whose “nature and uncontaminated atmosphere tend to build up constitutions instead of undermining them.” Determined to alleviate the congestion characteristic of the Northeast’s “great ghettos” and to minimize, avant la lettre, the possibility of antisemitism, Schiff and his associates attempted to prevail on those traveling to the New World to enter its precincts via Galveston, Texas, rather than land in New York or Philadelphia. And then, once in that “part of the country in which opportunity still knocks at every man’s door,” the new arrivals were encouraged to start afresh by taking a train to and settling in Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo.; Des Moines, Iowa, and Texarkana, Ark.

Toward that lofty and ambitious end, 100 agents, working on behalf of what would become known as the Galveston Plan, were stationed throughout the Pale of Settlement in the years prior to World War I to seek out recruits: able-bodied, “strong and healthy,” single men with transferable skills, with a background in cobbling, tailoring, metalwork and carpentry. Immigrants able to bend a bit, especially when it came to the retention of tradition, were also prized. “Intending emigrants should clearly understand that economic conditions everywhere in the United States are such that strict Sabbath observance is exceedingly difficult, in many cases, almost impossible,” warned a 1907 brochure put out by the program’s sponsors. All the same, the rhetoric of the Galveston Plan made sure to draw on a most potent Jewish idea in pitching its case, allowing that “every Galveston emigrant will have the mitzvah not only of preventing the closing of our present land of refuge but of opening up new places of refuge to our brethren.”

Anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 immigrants between 1907 and 1914 responded to these overtures, affixing the name “Galveston” to the popular imagination of Eastern Europe. (“Galveston is now so well known in Russia that a certain percentage of immigration will inevitably seek this port of its own volition,” the American Hebrew related in 1914.) But on the cusp of World War I, the Galveston Plan ground to a halt, its ability to recruit prospective settlers curtailed by a number of factors. For one thing, it turned out to be mighty hard to persuade immigrants, already daunted by the prospect of a long sea voyage, to add an additional three to four weeks to their travels by sailing to Galveston. That “calls for an amount of grit and determination which only a limited number of emigrants can be expected to have,” one contemporary observer explained.

Harder still was to convince them to forsake New York for Texas. Going to the Lower East Side was bad enough; going to Texas, the “wildest part of America, filled with cowboys with guns, also with wilder Indians and still wilder animals,” as one prospective immigrant put it, was even worse. Compounding matters was the strict admissions policy increasingly favored by Galveston’s immigrant officials. To counter the notion that things were too lax down south, that entry into the United States via the Texan seaport was far “too easy,” local officials steadily clamped down, generating a much higher rate of deportations than at Ellis Island. As immigrants got wind of this, they stayed away in droves, prompting the officials and champions of the Galveston Plan to cease its operations.

And yet, for all its flaws, the Galveston Plan deserves to have its day in the sun. A model of creative thinking, an attempt to respond to immigration in a positive and imaginative way, this enterprise was good for America and good for the Jews. As Schiff put it in 1909, “A well distributed population of some millions of our coreligionists… imbued with the Americanism of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt will form the best and most efficient centre our people can desire.”

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