Cleveland asks for inquiry into number of “aliens” in federal employment

On this day in 1896, President Grover Cleveland asks leaders of federal departments to investigate how many “aliens,” or foreign nationals, are currently employed in the federal government, specifically directing his request to the secretaries of state, treasury, war, navy, interior and agriculture, the postmaster general and the attorney general.

Cleveland was in his second term in 1896 and was the leader of a Democratic Party that was largely anti-immigrant. The late 19th century had witnessed an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, including a large number of Russian Jews. Anti-immigrant sentiment was widespread. In many cases, immigrants were blamed for increases in crime and for driving down wages. Immigrants, especially those from Europe, were also suspected of importing the “alien” theories that were taking shape in their home countries, such as socialism, anarchism and communism, and of fomenting political unrest. The large numbers of Asian immigrants from Japan and China who came to the West Coast to work on railroad construction and in agriculture often fared even more poorly than Europeans. These “non-white” Asian immigrants were subject to exclusionary laws and were seen as more resistant to assimilation than white European immigrants.

Cleveland firmly believed that the government carried the unquestionable authority to “prevent the influx of elements hostile to its internal peace and security even where there is not treaty stipulation on the subject.” His fear of what he thought would be damaging immigrant influence prompted him to investigate potential subversive behavior among federal employees of foreign birth as part of a larger program to stave off the negative effects of immigration on the nation’s political and economic security.

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