A Russian Cobbler: Wrongfully Deemed Disabled

By: John Gorgy

Case File: 53475/364

Immigrant: Motel Shmoish

Historical Context

Motel Shmoish was a skilled cobbler who arrived in the United States to escape the tyrannical czar Nicholas II, who had been oppressing Jews throughout his reign. However, America was not prepared to become exposed to different ordeals and cultures. The fear of pluralism in the United States in the early twentieth century was shared amongst legislators and officials.

Shmoish was debarred from the country despite the fact that he was a skillful cobbler and he had a support system of two brothers-in-law to guide him through his assimilation. His voyage on the S.S Russia brought upon a lack of nutrition which in turn made him seem frail in frame. The immigration inspector subjectively accepted the stereotypes bestowed upon Russian Jewish immigrants, and assumed that Shmoish was naturally “physically disabled” after seeing his malnourished state.

Shmoish was a model immigrant that exemplified whether America was ready to welcome a society filled with contrast rather than being opaque and concordant. His appeal process is the epitome of how far the United States and immigration officials would have gone to maintain a domestic culture. Shmoish was wrongly deemed “Likely to become a Public Charge”, considering there was no sign of a legitimate physical condition. This indicated that Williams Williams, Federal Commissioner of Immigration on Ellis Island, associated regions of Russia with a particular classification of people as being “disabled.”

During the early twentieth century, the United States started to develop a rather narrow view of who a “citizen” was due to discriminatory legislation. Certain races were socially and legally, by the 1903 and 1907 Immigration Acts, deemed undesirable. In 1903, immigration officials created a categorizing system that consisted of two different classes of disabled immigrants. Class A were immigrants who had contagious and extreme conditions in which they were instantly excluded by law. Class B left debarment up to the discretion of the physical examiner.

Later, the 1907 Immigration Act was designed to close what the Bureau of Immigration identified as “loopholes” in earlier laws. Even if an immigrant had family members that pleaded in favor of the immigrant, it did not have an effect for immigrants categorized as class B. This alteration to the law allocated complete authority to the examining officer. This jurisdiction did not place a burden of proof on officials and allowed them to execute the law as they deemed fit. The culture and ideologies of the time were embedded into the legislation. The desire to keep out people who were declared as unable to work was comparatively rooted in biased principles rooted in eugenics. Particularly, there was a racial prejudice towards Russian Jews due to the preconceived notion of them being typically frail in frame.

Ironically, as immigration laws became stricter and debarment rose in frequency, Commissioner Williams was nicknamed “Czar William.” For Motel Shmoish, it was a case of a man attempting to escape a reign of tyranny from one czar, but faced the despotism of yet another “czar” in Ellis Island.

Image Analysis
The first page of Harry Levin’s memorandum appealing for Motel Shmoish

What had been written about Shmoish by the Board of Special Inquiry and the General Commissioner contained illogical claims based off disputable assertions. The Acting Commissioner claimed that Shmoish was certified to have, “poor physical development and [a] frail frame affecting his ability to earn a living.” At the time, there was an ambiguity with labeling an immigrant to be “disabled” or “defective.” The subjectivity of deciding whether an immigrant looked to be weak did not correlate with the objective health status of the immigrant. Harry Levin, Shmoish’s lawyer retained by his two brothers-in-law, replied with an effective response to the Commissioner arguing this point.

The role of having representation during immigration trials was essential due to the complexity of immigration law. With the influx of regulation came a conundrum of legal terminology that was difficult to navigate for many immigrants. A lawyer was essential in helping the immigrant through the bureaucracy of Ellis Island. Levin’s main reason for Shmoish to be allowed to enter was revealed when he strove for the Board to retrospectively look at Shmoish impartially, with no bias. Levin attacked the immigration officials about their claims of what physical defects Shmoish “had” with a list of disabilities he did “not have.” By understating his “frail” frame and comparing it to a contagious “malady” or “crippling”, Levin portrayed a man that did not rightfully fit into a class A or class B disability.

Unfortunately, the memorandum had not influenced the Board, and Motel Shmoish was deported on August 13, 1912. However, the image sheds light upon an aspect of the immigration law in the early twentieth century — it signifies the importance of having proper representation. Lawyers are still essential to immigration cases since the law keeps getting more complex. Since immigration trials are classified as civil cases, and are not criminal trials, a lawyer does not have to be appointed by law. However, there is a necessity of lawyers to create a memorandum, just as this image depicts, to plea for immigrants; but unfortunately, too many immigrants might not have a lawyer to do so.

Why does this matter?

The case of Motel Shmoish depicts the sentiment the United States had towards Russian Jews and what immigration officials deemed as physically inadequate to enter. Similarly, in today’s immigration policy, the region an immigrant comes from is often more important than the qualities of the individuals themselves. Along with his “disability”, Shmoish was labeled as a man that lacked any capable skills and did not have desirable genetics to contribute to society, especially considering the eugenics ideology within American society.

An unfortunate truth was revealed when immigration officials did not look beyond his race and physique. His intentions of leaving Russia were to flee a tyrannical czar who had suppressed the Jewish population throughout his reign. The category Shmoish was put in was a category of people that many Americans shared a resentment for.

The hostility that had been implemented through Ellis Island can be contrasted to the attitudes of modern immigration legislation. There are asylum-seeking refugees attempting to enter America as a haven from problems in their origin countries. However, the law rules by bureaucracy, not civility, as it had previously done with Shmoish. The attitude towards immigrants south of the border is that they will ‘steal’ American jobs and will not easily assimilate; a similar marker applied by immigration officials towards Russian Jews during the 1910s.

The awareness of this thinking embedded within the United States immigration legislation is crucial. Although the demographic immigrating here today may be different, there still remains facets seen in the early twentieth century. To move beyond a system incorporated with racism and generalizations, a recognition of a broken system is necessary. A retrospective view that treats immigrants with more humane judgement is necessary in order to learn from what Motel Shmoish had gone through and alter what present immigrants still go through.

Questions for Future Consideration

1) Are there certain aspects in today’s immigration system that can make someone “undesirable” to society?

2) What societal stigmas about certain races can be seen in immigration policy today?

3) How does immigration policy and officials contrast when faced with a refugee attempting to enter?