How One Immigrant Almost Rewrote Immigration Law

By: Zachary Major

Case File: 53632/33-A

Immigrant: Simon Sitner

Main Text

Simon Sitner was a Russian Jew who emigrated from Russia to the United States, arriving on May 7, 1913. He arrived aboard the Franconia, which sailed between Liverpool, England, and Boston. After Sitner’s arrival, he was declared feeble-minded by the medical inspectors, debarring him from entry.

Before his deportation, Sitner was held at a detention facility in Boston, where a janitor mistakenly released him from the facility. A warrant was therefore issued for his arrest, with Sitner being charged of unlawful entry into the country. After Sitner was arrested, he and his lawyer, William H. Lewis, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted to him. A writ of habeas corpus is an order to the court to determine if a person is being detained lawfully, and this writ allowed for Sitner to leave the detention facility.

For the next three years, Sitner worked, earning $641 for himself and sending $400 back to his family in Russia. In 1916, the Bureau of Immigration tried once again to deport Sitner on the charge of being feeble-minded at the time of his entry into the country. During these hearings, both a private doctor and a doctor who worked with the Bureau of Immigration examined Sitner to determine his mental age. The private doctor gave Sitner a mental age of 11.8 years and the Bureau doctor gave him a mental age of 12 years. Under the regulations of the Immigration Act of 1907, a mental age of 12 years did not certify Sitner as feeble-minded.

The Bureau then decided to have the Board of Special Inquiry examine Sitner’s case and make a decision based off of his status when he originally entered the country. Instead, the Board mistakenly decided to exclude Sitner based on the physical defects he had (age and poor vision), which supposedly affected his ability to make a living. This mistake by the Board would become one part of Stiner’s attorney’s mounting attacks against the medical credibility of the Board. This attack of credibility was centered around the Board’s lack of medical knowledge and how this affected the Board’s ability to make medical decisions for immigrants.

This argument was discredited when the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed, which made it so that medical officers were to decide medical questions and the Board of Special Inquiry was to decide practical questions concerning admission based on the information provided to them. Thus, the Bureau decided that it was in its best interest to sustain Sitner’s appeal and forget his case. This is because of the consequences that Sitner’s case would have held; had the Bureau not sustained Sitner’s appeal and Sitner won the case in court, this would have created an adverse decision. An adverse decision is when a decision is made that could in theory be used adversely by other plaintiffs. In terms of Sitner’s case, an adverse ruling would have allowed for immigrants who had previously been debarred from entry into the United States based on a medical decision made by the Board of Special Inquiry, to sue for entry. Therefore, Simon Sitner’s case would have had major implications for immigrants in the early twentieth century had his appeal not been sustained and his case forgotten.

The Reason Behind Forgetting THE Case
Hampton’s acknowledgment of the Board’s disadvantage

It was a memorandum written by the Assistant Commissioner General, Alfred Hampton, that first mentions the Bureau of Immigration’s decision to sustain Simon Sitner’s appeal and forget his case. Hampton knew that the Board of Special Inquiry had issues, having written that the Board was “composed entirely of laymen” when tasked to “analyze and decide medical questions.” This is the main reason why the Bureau internally decided to sustain Sitner’s appeal — the Bureau knew that Sitner’s case would cause an adverse decision. The Bureau knew that its own Boards had little medical knowledge and from this stemmed a lack of credibility. The Bureau knew that if Sitner’s case went through the courts, Sitner would probably win.  This factors into why Hampton wrote that the best decision was to “sustain the appeal and ‘forget’ the case — regard it as a closed incident.”

They decided to sustain Sitner’s appeal since this meant that Sitner could not pursue the question of the Board’s expertise in court. This is also why they decided to “forget” about the case. If someone decided to look through the Bureau’s case files and found Sitner’s case, they may have taken the Bureau to court on account of the exclusion of immigrants by a Board of Special Inquiry did not have the qualifications to exclude any immigrants based off of medical history. To sustain Sitner’s appeal and “forget” the case was in the best interest of the Bureau of Immigration, and they were able to save the credibility of their Boards of Special Inquiry as well as preventing previously excluded immigrants from suing for entry into the United States.

The Bureau’s ultimate decision for Sitner’s case
Why It Matters

This case supplies insight to the possibilities of an adverse decision and how this could have affected the future of immigration policy in the early twentieth century. The case also revealed that the Board of Special Inquiry did not have the medical knowledge required to decide a case based around mental health and physical defects.

Following the Immigration Act of 1917, medical decisions were taken out of the hands of the Board of Special Inquiry. This would have stopped any immigrant entering after this act from taking the Bureau to court based off of the credibility of the Bureau’s Boards of Special Inquiry. Even though this act was passed, Sitner’s case could have changed the law, had the case gone to court. To the Bureau of Immigration, they averted an immigration disaster by dropping Sitner’s case and forgetting about it.

Questions for Future Consideration

1) Had this adverse decision taken place, would it have affected immigration in later decades?

2) Is there any instance in today’s immigration laws that would create the possibility of an adverse decision? How would this affect later immigrants to come?

3) Why do you think that immigration officials, especially in the early twentieth century, were so against the concept of new immigrants entering the country?

Other Works Cited

Boyle, Peyton, et al. “The Federal Reporter: With Key-number Annotations.” vol. 212, pp. 571-573.