Leaving home

America beckons, but Americans repel...

While successive European invasions and settlement of the western hemisphere had immediate and catastrophic impacts on indigenous Americans—amounting to one of the most devastating genocides in history—and while the transatlantic slave trade enabled one of the largest and most brutal forced movement of peoples known, the U.S. was also the endpoint for one of the largest voluntary human migrations in history. Seemingly from its inception, however, this [mostly] nation of immigrants has proven to be deeply ambivalent about who can enter, who can stay and who can become a citizen...while routinely embracing both extreme hostility as well as genuine empathy towards new arrivals. The first decades of the 20th century were no exception.

Between 1908 and 1923, approximately 10 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Two federally controlled immigration stations processed most of the arrivals: Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in California.1 Within the following ten years more than one-third would return to their homeland, never to make the voyage to America again.2

Most of those who stayed would eventually become naturalized U.S. citizens and those who had children while in the U.S. might have been surprised to find that their offspring, by virtue of being born in the U.S., had acquired a nationality different from their own. Naturalization also allowed wives and children who were otherwise left behind when their husbands and fathers caught “America fever” to (perhaps unwittingly) now possess the means to reunite with family in a new land, without being subject to odious quota restrictions or being placed into a growing list of exclusionary categories.

Inevitably, many immigrants would struggle with their newfound national identity, as well as with finding balance with their relations back in the old world. Over the course of the next several decades, thousands would travel back to their homeland or the homeland of their parents, then return to the U.S.—all of them departing and arriving as U.S. citizens. When did they start and stop being immigrants? Were children born to immigrant parents in the U.S. but brought to their ancestral homeland while an infant, then returned to the U.S. decades later more like citizens in immigrant clothing? Lines become blurred and photos from passport applications and consular documents can help visually construct the often complex and ambiguous status of immigrants, return migrants and sojourners.

Eventually, the multiple departures and arrivals experienced by (im)migrants would carry procedural requirements that would end up capturing their identities photographically.


Long before Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights granted that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”, immigrant/migrant mobility was on the rise across the globe. While the subject of contemporary geographic mobility has been a much discussed topic for decades, the mobility of third wave immigrants (ca.1880-1924) is much less known or explored.3

The exponential rise in the scale of transnational travel—as well as national worries stemming from émigrés fleeing poverty, conflict, war and genocide—would permanently affect the composition of international identity documents. Although it might initially seem a banal outcome, the increase in mobility coupled with the tumult of WWI would have enduring effects on something required of all citizens, declarants, etc. who wished to travel outside their own country: that they possess valid identity documents with applicant photographs. Other, less obvious but equally important factors affected this international regulatory outcome as well.

By 1920, the League of Nations had standardized the composition of passports4 for its member states, requiring applicant photographs to be included in all issued passports. In 1947 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with scope far wider than the League, set and continues to determine international passport standards.

Visualizing immigrants

An unintended byproduct of changes to U.S. passport requirements during this time period created a unique but easily overlooked contribution to visual culture. Photos have been required of applicants and affixed to multi-page passport applications since 1914; the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) has kept most of the original applications or duplicates. These NARA collections are the source of the photos used throughout this website.

A deep look into the NARA passport application collections is a bewildering affair (there are hundreds of thousands of records), but also a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of emigrants in transition. Having their photographs allows contemporary viewers to see them as the immigrant inspectors saw emigrants upon arrival—unembellished and concealing little.

While only a small portion of citizens (native or naturalized) traveled during this period, the scale of photographic documents contained in the passport applications alone easily overtakes the collective work of the most well-known "immigrant photographers".

The source material is astonishing from an archival point of view and of course a boon to genealogists, but the unexpected beauty of the portraits can have a transcendent pull on the viewer; it's as if we're seeing the age of mass migration for the first time or at least in a more complete way than ever before.  The photos include small masterpieces of vernacular photography as well as genuinely stunning examples of anonymously composed photographic art. Above all, it is the scale and diversity woven into the applications that sets these photo collections apart from previously circulated images of early 20th century immigrants to the U.S.

Unless otherwise noted, all of the photos used on this Scalar website—as well as the 23000+ images hosted on Flickr—are from such identity documents, primarily U.S. passport applications. More information on this can be found in the Another view: passport photos chapter.

Home abroad

Crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific wasn’t an easy journey to make during the first decades of the twentieth century, whether for the first or tenth time. Compounding the hardship of travel, many emigrants can accurately be described as economic refugees, fleeing old world poverty and privation.  Others would form an outright diaspora in the U.S. as survivors of genocide, pogroms, disintegrating empires and ethnic cleansing—specifically during the WWI era and its long aftermath, 1914-1925. And many more in Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands and other U.S. controlled insular areas would unwittingly find themselves to be U.S. Citizens or U.S. Nationals in 1917 after their lands, often with great disruption and violence, became undeclared territories of the United States.

A close analysis of original U.S. passport applications made during this time period shows that regardless of national origin and despite some increasingly draconian laws that obstructed emigration of certain ethnic groups, “races” and nationalities, people found ways to make transoceanic voyages.

Transatlantic and Transpacific mobility increased tremendously as steamships grew in size and as fares diminished.

As the second decade of the 20th century unfolded, it simply became easier, less time-consuming and less expensive to travel back and forth from the old world to the new. Voyagers might travel as a return migrant—in some cases more than a dozen times over, or across the Caribbean Sea as a transnational migrant, or as an émigré returning to a homeland long ago left behind. WWI certainly adversely affected transoceanic voyage, but soon after the Great War’s conclusion emigration rates would soar until all but flat lining after the Immigration Act of 1924 came into full force.

For many immigrants, the pull to the United States was sometimes greater than the push from their homeland, but not surprisingly this could change over time or as conditions at home deteriorated. Family obligations, old property left behind, and a myriad of other concerns must have weighed heavily on recent immigrants and hastened travel back to their homeland.

Ironically, naturalized U.S. citizens born in the disintegrating empires of the times (German, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian) or residents of U.S. insular possessions born in China, Philippines or Puerto Rico—who most likely had different reasons for needing to travel in the first place—might have viewed traveling as an "American" either as a blessing or a curse.

Others would leave as well.

Missionaries, Vaudeville, Back to Africa

During this same period (1914-1925) even comparatively well-off Anglo-Saxon “Native Americans”, who may have long since lost touch with their old world roots, would set out across the globe in record numbers as missionaries, relief workers, journalists, nurses & physicians, teachers, engineers, merchants and intrepid tourists. These were of course not immigrants per se, but rather travelers and sojourners in pursuit of work and or involvement in humanitarian/religious missions. Missionaries in particular were typically long-term residents in far off places, such as China, India, Sri Lanka, and the Straits Settlements. Others taking up overseas employment were little different from today's "knowledge migrants" in that their highly-skilled or specialized labor was voluntarily sought with little economic, social or political pressures precipitating their emigration.

Photos from this category of citizenry (i.e. "extra" native-born), on the whole differ dramatically from the immigrant photos both in style and substance. Class distinction is often on display in their manner of dress, as well as an often more cavalier attitude towards having a picture taken. Though many of the photos depict earnest, serious subjects, others show individuals smoking, holding pets, standing beside cars, on boats, in rickshaws, reclining in chairs, tending garden, reading, even knitting.  These stand in stark contrast to many of the immigrant photographs, where an almost palpable sense of desperation is often evident.

Many African Americans made the journey as well—finding long-term engagements all over the world as musicians, theatrical artists, or as vaudeville performers but also in skilled professions or as missionaries, soldiers and entrepreneurs. Facts made clear by paths and routes contained in passport applications run contrary to any assumptions that mobility was out of reach to African Americans.

During this same time period, an early “Back-to-Africa” movement led by a Gold Coast merchant and pioneer pan-Africanist named Chief Alfred Sam would inspire a group of African Americans to emigrate from Oklahoma to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1914. It is an astonishing story and some recent historical investigations are bringing this little known story to light.

One of the photo albums I've assembled contains a precious handful of photos of individuals associated with the Chief Sam movement, along with many more African Americans who were working in Liberia as missionaries, teachers, engineers and doctors.  It coalesces into a fascinating microcosm of expatriate African Americans in an improbable place and time. In another chapter, I've explored the lives of a few people associated with the movement.

However, it wasn't only the "Chief Sam" movement that precipitated African American emigration. Black mobility in general was increasing just as it was for the rest of America despite economic, political, and social constraints that were keeping old divisions back home steadfastly in place. Early 20th century mobility and the ensuing controversies around migration have more in common with early 21st century migration than might appear at first glance.

Mass migration, mass restriction

Although the subject of early 20th century immigration to the U.S. has attracted considerable scholarly attention for decades, often with eye-opening results, its frequent but superficial coverage by most mass media outlets has enabled and reinforced a shallow understanding of migration in general. There are notable exceptions, particularly occurring post-2017, but much of the best contemporary reporting has been fundamentally reactive towards Trump-era provocations, rather than reflecting some righteous continuum that has avoided overtly discriminatory, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric. Few newspapers, magazines or publishers were ahead of contemporary immigration issues and even fewer have made formal apologies or admissions of past complicity in helping to shape an often one-dimensional, racist stance towards the "new immigration" the U.S. faced in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Trump administration's bellicose and incendiary anti-immigrant stance breathed new life into a number of seemingly arcane issues with long histories—issues that, at the time of their early debate, most Progressive Era newsmakers and newspapers served as reliable cheerleaders towards, often going much further in their rhetoric than the anodyne but effective anti-immigrant statements made by politicians, lawmakers and immigration officials.

Many of today's most shocking headlines involving immigration issues could serve as 180° reversal to the headlines in the very same newspapers during the 1900s and 1920s; same subject, opposite stance. Over the years, the movement from unabashed hostility towards immigration on to a reluctant embrace has only been made incrementally, so much so that the slow about face has quietly gone unnoticed. Such actions helped nurture the popularly-held notion that Progressive Era reformers were uniformly pro-immigration, while in reality the vast majority were at best ambiguous on the issue or abhorrently bigoted.

Unfortunately, the contemporary redeployment of race-based exclusionreligion-based exclusion, the Public charge rule, denaturalization campaigns, family separation, mass deportation—even former Attorney General Jeff Sessions praising the 1924 Immigration Act—caused a persistent, mild outrage but few mea culpas.5

All of these "contemporary" issues have deep roots in the era of mass migration and mass restriction; their reemergence warrants a fresh appraisal of how they came about to begin with and why they resonated with today's immigration restrictionists in a way not dissimilar to the restrictionists of 100 years ago.

During the early 1900s, the still emerging technology of photography, and its eventual uptake as a component of identity, would prove to be an ideal vehicle for transmitting and reinforcing anti-immigrant bias against the "new immigration" primarily coming from southern and southeastern Europe.


1 Ellis island primarily received immigrants from European, Middle Eastern and Near Eastern territories while Angel Island processed individuals from countries in Asia, primarily China and Japan. Other ports of entry include Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

2 Wyman, Mark. 1996. Round-trip to America: the immigrants return to Europe, 1880-1930. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 10.

3 "First wave" generally refers to English-speaking, Protestant immigrants who arrived before 1810, while the second wave predominantly included Irish and German Catholics who arrived starting in the mid-19th century; both waves preceded steamship travel and therefore the immigrants involved were much less mobile. Some recent studies on third wave immigrants using complex economic modeling and a more global approach to show linkages between home and destination are helping to develop a more nuanced understanding of the beginning of the phenomena of mass return migration. For example, see Ward, Zachary. 2017. "Birds of passage: Return migration, self-selection and immigration quotas". Explorations in Economic History. 64: 37-52. and Green, Nancy L., and Roger David Waldinger. 2017. A century of transnationalism: immigrants and their homeland connections.

4 See the League's "Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets".

5 Some recent exceptions include the book publisher Charles Scribner's Sons, who published both Hemingway and Fitzgerald alongside the work of prominent eugenicists and rabid immigration restrictionists like Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard during the 1910s and 1930s. In 2019, Scribner published Daniel Okrent's excellent "The Guarded Gate", a deep examination on the role eugenics played in the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924. The irony was not lost on Okrent, who went on to write that although "the editors and their colleagues responsible for this publishing program [of white-supremacists like Grant and Stoddard] are long dead [...] their successors of a century later could not have been more supportive of my effort to explore Scribner’s unfortunate place in this story." In 2020, Scientific American published a brief but fascinating examination and apology on the role the magazine played in promoting eugenic thought up until the late 1930s, declaring that "confronting our [Scientific American's] history gives us the courage to understand the limitations of our own age and reach beyond them." See: "Reckoning with Our Mistakes" in Scientific American 323, 3, 36-41 (September 2020). In September 2021, both the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), who hosted the 2nd and 3rd International Eugenics Congress, and Science magazine made similar mea culpas over their "shameful and notable role in the scientific acceptance of eugenics in the United States and the world" (Science) and efforts to "acknowledge, confront, and apologize for its role in the eugenics movement." (AMNH). In September 2022, Nature magazine apologized for its prominent role in spreading eugenic doctrine for over four decades through its publishing. See: "How Nature contributed to science’s discriminatory legacy" in Nature 609, 875-876 (29 September 2022).

This page has paths:

This page references: