Disability and the Law

By: Christopher Chan

Case File: 53475/286

Immigrants: Schimen and Hersch Koscher

Main Text

On July 31, 1912, two young Russian Jewish immigrants named Schimen and Hersch Koscher arrived at Ellis Island in hopes of rejoining their father. Unfortunately, the two brothers were detained when Schimen was discovered to be a deaf-mute. Immigration officials ordered them to be barred from entering and deported at once due to the Schimen’s disability and Hersch’s young age. Subsequently, their father appealed to the Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington to allow the brothers to enter, and he also went to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society for legal aid. The organization provided a lawyer to help defend the brothers, but despite having legal counsel, they eventually lost the case, and the two brothers were deported back to Russia on August 10, 1912.

Disability was one of the issues immigrants had to be concerned with when trying to enter the United States, and how disability was evaluated called into question the fairness of the immigration system. Fairness in the immigration service was unfavorable towards immigrants due to contemporary racial and ethnic biases. In the case of the Koscher brothers, Russian Jews were perceived to be feeble-minded and of an inferior race in the early twentieth century. These biases influenced laws, which were made to keep out as many “undesirable” immigrants as possible. Immigration officials often used the “Likely to become a Public Charge” (LPC) clause as a reason to exclude immigrants that potentially needed public funds to get by. However, the clause was purposely made to be vague in description so that officials could liberally exclude immigrants.

The clause caused many immigrants to seek help from immigrant aid groups, like the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, to make appeals against these cases. These appeals were often successful in overturning many of the LPC charges, since the reasoning behind the charge was usually unfair or controversial. Furthermore, lawyers often presented immigrants’ former jobs, wealth, and skills as evidence against the LPC charge, which applied in the case of the Koscher brothers. Lawyers also helped to identify sponsors for immigrants, like the father of the brothers, in order to demonstrate to immigration officials that the immigrants in question would not become public charges. Though many appeals against the LPC charge were successful and immigrant aid groups were expanding, deportation still steadily increased until the Immigration Act of 1924.

As more immigrants won their appeals, the Immigration Act of 1907 was passed, which included disability as a reason for an LPC charge and required a medical certificate for entry. This Act heavily affected the brothers, as both laws made them unable to enter the country. By 1907, a defect like being deaf-mute was a “valid” reason for an immigrant to be labeled LPC. The new legislation made it much harder for lawyers to argue against the LPC clause, specifically for immigrants with disabilities. Though some disabled immigrants were successful in appealing their LPC charges, the success rate dropped after the 1907 revision to the law had passed. The deportation of the brothers showed how immigrants with disabilities were treated unfairly and were discriminated for their disabilities, as well as how racial and ethnic biases linked the notions together.

Image Analysis
Schimen’s Medical Certificate

This is the certificate that Schimen received on Ellis Island after his medical examination. The surgeon’s name on the bottom of the document shows the official nature of the certification, which was used to legitimize the LPC charge and made it difficult for lawyers to argue against it. The reason for deportation cites the Immigration Act of 1907 as its source and listed the disability as “deaf-mute.” This type of reasoning reflects the immediate negative effects the law has on immigrants and how the vagueness of the LPC clause enabled officials to abuse their authority and take advantage of the clause.

Officials abused the clause by classifying almost any defect as a disability, often ignoring the immigrant’s previous credentials or the proper medical definition of a disability. This was seen in the document where the surgeon decided, in his own opinion, that Schimen was “helpless from the condition” he had, ignoring Schimen’s previous occupation as a tailor and that being a deaf-mute does not affect a person’s ability to work in many professions. The date of the certification was the same as the arrival date of the brothers, which was July 31, 1912. This shows the medical inspections were conducted quickly and without care, resulting in a poor experience in part for the immigrant, and in the case of the brothers, flawed judgement. The official nature of the certificate, the biased judgement, and the inspection itself show that the brothers’ experience on Ellis Island was one of discrimination and unfairness, much like the experience of many disabled migrants.

Why it matters

It is important to learn about the story of Schimen and Hersch Koscher as it shows how the immigration service viewed disability. Their story also shows how racial and ethnic biases toward certain immigrants had an influence in the basic policy on disability. Expansion of restrictions, like the 1907 law, led to higher numbers of immigrants being deported due to biased assumptions on the immigrant’s ability to make a living and survive without public funds. As such, migrants like the brothers had a harder time attempting to enter the country and appealing their cases.

While much has changed for the better since the early twentieth century, traces of old restrictions and feelings are still found in current legislation. Current legislation is more lenient towards legal migrants with disabilities than in the past, with inspections being less restrictive and subjective. However, illegal immigrants with disabilities still face a biased judicial process, influenced by stereotypes akin to racial and ethnic biases. Though immigrant aid societies remain an important part in providing legal aid, legal aid overall is still limited. Due to these persistent issues, many illegal immigrants continue to lose their cases, resulting in deportations.

Other Questions

1) What prevailing ideas decide how the state sees disability in respect to popular ideas and views on the immigrant?

2) How do immigration officials decide the fitness of immigrants, and what are their qualifications?

3) How does the immigration service understand disability?