Immigration Acts and Fiorello LaGuardia

Fiorello LaGuardia served in Congress prior to his election as Mayor of New York City. He served from 1916-1920 and then again from 1922-1930 and was a member of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. In the latter period the Congress debated several proposals to either limit or expand the number of immigrants permitted to legally enter the country. The debates around these bills echo in the Halls of Congress today.

Mayor LaGuardia in 1939. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Although the bulk of the Municipal Archives collection of LaGuardia records are from his three terms serving as Mayor of the City, the records from his Congressional years offer a glimpse into his leadership on a variety of issues, including immigration. The records contain copies of bills he introduced to exempt overseas family members from the immigration quotas, correspondence, commentary and news clippings.

Below are LaGuardia’s remarks on two legislative proposals. The first oppose a family separation bill and LaGuardia objects to the process which he calls inhumane. The second commentary is about an amendment to a bill introduced by Washington Congressman Albert Johnson that mandated the central registration of immigrants and subsequent deportation of those who did not become citizens within a set period. Interestingly in this piece, LaGuardia focuses on the issue of “alien bootleggers.” In both pieces, LaGuardia decries the influence of the Ku Klux Klan on Congress. Both sets of remarks eventually were published in the Congressional Record.

Fiorello LaGuardia Congressional testimony. Office of the Mayor, Mayor LaGuardia, Subject Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

MR. LA GUARDIA. Mr. Speaker, there is no use attempting to make an appeal on the merits of the bill, when we are proceeding under mob rule and not under parliamentary procedure: It is almost incredible that when a bill that deals with human beings, that when a bill that will separate families, is before the House any human being can be so inhuman as to gloat over the misery you are inflicting by this bill.

Oh, what a different performance it is around October when you go down on your knees and you come around and say, “LaGuardia, will you come in my district and tell my people what a good Congressman I am.”

I say that the procedure this afternoon is a blot on the history of the American Congress. You would not dare bring out a bill at this time under this mob rule dealing with pigs in the Agricultural Department.

You would not do it. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. It is not only inhuman but it is not parliamentary.

But next session you are going to follow rules; you will have no mob rule, and I hope you will tell the clansman over there what I am telling them over here.

Mr. O’CONNER of N.Y. There are as many Ku Klux men over there as we have over here.

MR. LAGUARDIA. I will give them to you. This is according to the rules of the Klan and not according to the rules of the American Congress. Gloat over it, but I do not think that the statesmen in the other body are going to pass the bill when you have acted as you have. I do not believe they will. They are too decent. They are too clean. They are too human. I am ashamed of this conduct. It is a disgrace. (Applause)

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the remainder of my time.


Fiorello LaGuardia Congressional speech. Office of the Mayor, Mayor LaGuardia, Subject Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Johnson Deportation Bill, known as the undesirable alien bill, was before the House a few days ago. The purpose of the bill was to deport all undesirable aliens. The bill, far fetched and extreme as it was, seemed not to have been sufficiently cruel for the Klansmen and one hundred percenters. Whereupon an amendment was adopted by the House which was carried with a great deal of zest and joy, providing for the deportation of so called “alien bootleggers.”

The impression seems to be in some quarters, and especially among the Klansmen, that only aliens violate the Prohibition Law. It was pointed out that there are several thousand aliens engaged in the boot-legging industry. Of course that statement was not true. But all the extreme restrictionists and fanatic drys seem to overlook the fact that if there are a thousand bootleggers they must be selling their wares and hootch and rum to native drinkers.

Now, it does seem strange that the law which is supposed to be equal for all, just and impartial, will impose a penalty of deportation on an alien bootlegger who sells, but no penalty to the native buyer who drinks. As a matter of fact, the bootleg industry is too lucrative to be left in the hands of aliens. There are, no doubt, aliens who engage in bootlegging in a small retail way. It is this kind of retail, small bootleggers that are generally arrested, convicted and sent to jail.

A still at 1366 East 58th St., Brooklyn, December 17, 1926. One of the many small bootlegging operations raided by the police in the late 1920s. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

After ten years of prohibition there have been very few cases of wholesale bootleggers arrested or convicted. Millions of gallons of liquor which is consumed every week in this country is brought in, transported and distributed in wholesale quantities. This industry requires financing – running into large figures, and today the records fail to show that any of the big men financing this new industry and profiting by it have been convicted and punished.

The reason there are thousands of bootleggers is because there are millions of drinkers. There are millions of drinkers in this country for the reason that the law is extreme and unenforceable. The trouble is that a great many of the people who violate the law and drink, are strong for the law for everybody else except themselves.

Many policies similar to those that LaGuardia and his cohort opposed have recently resurfaced. The language and the opposing sides seem eerily like the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the late 1920s.

A new exhibit, The Language of the City: Immigrant Voices, opened to the public on September 13th at the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The new show incorporates “We Are Brooklyn: Immigrant Voices,” a multimedia exhibition based on oral histories conducted by Brooklyn College students with materials from the New York City Municipal Archives.