A century ago, the S.S. Buford set sail from New York, carrying almost 250 recently deported Russian radicals back to their homeland. The most famous passenger on the ship was Emma Goldman, the country’s leading anarchist. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer saw the departure of the “Soviet Ark” as the final chapter in his efforts to rid America of Communist sympathizers, promising that another 3,000 deportations would soon follow. Like Cuccinelli, Palmer believed that the safety and prosperity of America depended on the ability of the federal government to identify and bar “troublesome” immigrants.
But Palmer was wrong. The departure of the Buford, which at first glance appeared to be a victory for the federal government, in fact demonstrated the abject failure of 40 years of American immigration policy and the folly of such restrictions.
In the 1880s, when the passengers of the Buford had begun to arrive in the U.S., the federal government started to take an interest in distinguishing between “desirable” and “undesirable” migrants — a task that had previously been managed by state and local governments. Eighteen-eighty-two, which witnessed the passage of the Immigration Act, also brought the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a moratorium on the entry of Chinese laborers.
At precisely the moment that the federal government assumed the task of excluding “undesirables,” a massive wave of immigration from the Russian empire began. The vast majority of these migrants were Jews fleeing pogroms as well as economic privation. Unlike the Chinese, these Russian-Jewish immigrants were welcomed by American immigration officials and acquired an important role in the national mythos.
As victims of tsarist oppression, they personified the struggle for freedom against tyranny. Furthermore, their willingness to accept low-paying work in sweatshops and factories testified to their potential for enriching the national economy. In 1882, the New York Times described newly arrived Russian Jews as unusually “intelligent, healthy, industrious.”
At first, the romance between America and Russian-Jewish immigrants was mutual. Positive reports about the political and economic opportunities that existed in America — reinforced by financial remittances sent back home — circulated in even the most isolated shtetls. Goldman herself, who arrived in 1885, was smitten with her adoptive homeland, which she described as a new “promised land” for Russian Jews. She first found work as a seamstress and eventually saved enough money to open an ice cream shop.
However, Goldman’s attitude soon soured when confronted by the harsh realities of immigrant life. She observed that immigrants toiled in squalid conditions no better than those they had fled in Russia, and she was appalled by the police brutality she witnessed at worker protests. Eventually, she began to frequent political meetings organized by German Marxist and anarchist emigres on New York’s Lower East Side. Other immigrants followed suit, and by the late 1880s, Russian-Jewish neighborhoods boasted a dense network of radical clubs, newspapers and organizations.
The growing popularity of revolutionary ideas among Russian-Jewish workers prompted concern from both local officials and national politicians. Police disrupted radical meetings, and in 1903 Congress passed new laws expanding its power to deport anarchists.
These coercive efforts only radicalized the immigrant critics of the state, however. Convicted of inciting a riot after an incendiary speech she delivered in 1893, Goldman described her subsequent experience behind bars as a “crucible.” She left prison more determined than ever “to fight for my ideals, against the whole world if need be.”
The confrontation between Russian-Jewish radicals and the American state intensified during the First World War. Many immigrant radicals became devoted pacifists — a position that verged on treason in the midst of the patriotic fervor that accompanied the war. In June 1917, Goldman and her sometime lover, the fellow Russian-Jewish anarchist Alexander Berkman, were arrested and imprisoned for anti-conscription activism.
The repression of immigrant radicals grew even more pervasive after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia that October. As many Russian-born immigrants cheered the revolution in their homeland, the U.S. government intensified its surveillance and repression of left-wing activism for fear that Bolshevism would seep into the United States. A 1918 law expanded the government’s powers to deport radical aliens, and in 1919 Attorney General Palmer oversaw a series of raids that arrested 10,000 left-wing radicals. Hundreds of activists rounded up in these raids eventually found themselves on the Buford alongside Goldman and Berkman.
The effort of immigration officials to distinguish between “worthwhile” and “dangerous” immigrants had been an utter failure. Although many Russian-Jewish immigrants had assimilated into American society, many others like Goldman had emerged as trenchant critics of the capitalist state. There were no indications in the biographies of new arrivals to suggest who would become a “model” citizen, and who would become a revolutionary. The radicalization of these migrants had occurred in America — and state attempts to control immigrant dissent only intensified it.
The passengers aboard the Buford thus symbolized the failure of decades of immigration policy. As the boat launched its journey, it became even more clear that the government’s belief that it could solve America’s problems through exclusion and expulsion was wrongheaded. Soviet officials admitted some of the ship’s passengers, including Goldman and Berkman, but refused others, echoing the U.S. government’s claims that they were dangerous “bomb-throwers.” Shortly after the arrival of the Buford, the Soviet regime closed Russia’s borders. This ended Palmer’s dream of solving America’s domestic political challenges through mass deportation.
By 1921, both Goldman and Berkman had become disillusioned critics of the Communist dictatorship and were forced to flee Russia, becoming exiles for the third time. Together, the U.S. and Soviet Russia had rendered Goldman and her associates permanent nomads. But instead of extinguishing radical ideas, the exclusionary policies of these two states unwittingly facilitated the spread of revolutionary visions across borders.
Goldman used her new period of exile to write political lectures and a best-selling memoir that was hailed by the New York Times and New Yorker as one of the best books of the year. And appropriately enough, she used the immigration laws that had long tormented her to her advantage. She acquired British citizenship by entering a marriage of convenience with a Scottish anarchist, which allowed her to travel freely around Europe and continue her agitation.
In short, the story of the S.S. Buford lays bare the problems of using immigration policy to root out and exclude undesirable migrants. As the case of Emma Goldman and her compatriots shows, human experience is too complex to define in terms of utility to the state; today’s “useful” migrant might turn into an impassioned dissident, or vice versa. It also reminds us that state interference and closed borders can produce unintended effects, radicalizing those victimized by state power and amplifying their voices. Immigration exclusion was bad policy in the 19th century, and it is bad policy today. In a globalized world, ideas and activism cannot be contained by borders.