U.S. Immigration Policy's Impact on Seafarers: A Brief History

Jan 31, 2017

by Johnathan Thayer
Senior Archivist, The Seamen's Church Institute

President Trump’s Executive Order (E.O.) of January 27, 2017 issued a suspension of entry into the United States for citizens of Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Recently, the Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights, Douglas B. Stevenson Esq., has confirmed with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that seafarers from the seven banned countries will not be allowed shore leave, nor be signed off their vessels on D visas.

Such measures that bar foreign seafarers from entering U.S. ports have long historical precedents. For context, we can turn to the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, and the dragnet “alien seamen” raids of 1931.

Historical context

During and following World War I, increasingly restrictive immigration policies were fueled by racism, economic concerns over foreign labor competition, and widespread fears of radical politics infiltrating the U.S from Southern and Eastern European nations. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, in addition to excluding immigration from most of the Asian continent entirely, established quotas for all immigrants based on a hierarchy of selective inclusion determined by nationality and ethnicity. Whereas the typical entry process for non-citizen migrants took place at official inspection centers like Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San Francisco, merchant seamen were subject to inspections on board their vessels, but only to check for infectious diseases and other mental or physical ailments. In all other respects, the burden of proof for the legitimacy of a ship’s crew list resided fully with an appointed ship’s officer.

Growing suspicion

Given the porous state of inspections involving merchant vessels and seamen, it is hardly surprising that in 1924 alone the U.S. Labor Secretary estimated that 38,000 merchant seamen, or those impersonating merchant seamen, had deserted their vessels in American ports. While shipping company officials maintained that as much as seventy-five percent of these desertions involved men who were intent on reshipping out on different vessels, as was within their rights to shore leave as guaranteed under the 1915 Seamen’s Act, immigration officials and Congressmen on the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization were far more suspicious.

Merchant ships and the impersonation of seamen remained a viable and fluid channel for entering the country while circumventing much of the official encounter with the state required of other non-seaman immigrants until 1931. In March of that year, responding to a Supreme Court ruling that had granted wide license for the mass deportation of alien seamen, the Labor Department issued a decree calling for local agencies to prepare for the deportation of up to 100,000 merchant seamen who were believed to have deserted in American ports and who were supposedly residing in the country illegally.

Immigration raids in NYC

In New York, the Bureau of Criminal Alien Investigation at the New York Police Department conducted a warrantless raid at the headquarters of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), located in the heart of the City’s Lower Manhattan port district. In 1931, 25 South Street was the declared permanent residence of more than 5,000 merchant seamen who were out of work and forced to remain in New York City due to the lack of employment opportunities in a severely slumping shipping industry. Seamen who claimed 25 South Street as their home included men who paid nominal fees to rent out one of the more than five hundred dormitory-style rooms houses within the building’s thirteen floors, or those who had taken out post office boxes at SCI’s thriving postal office. This cluster of merchant seamenmany of them foreign nationals, whether naturalized or residing in the country illegallyrepresented a prime target for immigration officials under orders to clean up the nation’s waterfronts.

The actual raid took place on the morning of February 3, 1931, with 102 men detained at 25 South Street and sent for processing at Ellis Island. A similar raid had taken place in Hoboken, NJ just days earlier on January 27, in which some 300 seamen, mostly German, were detained and interrogated. 63 men were sent to Ellis Island facing deportation charges. Most of the detainees faced similar charges of illegally gaining entry into the U.S. via merchant vessels. Similar raids continued to occur in New York City during the early months of 1931, including at a ball held at the Finnish Workers’ Education Association, at which 1,000 men and women were detained without warrant.

Public opposition

It did not take long before public backlash mounted against this proliferation of dragnet-style raids in which thousands of men and women were illegally detained under vague suspicion of having violated terms of immigration legislation which may or may not apply to them. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) led complaints against these “alien drives,” protesting against the “high-handed and unlawful” tactics of immigration agents. By April 1931, the Labor Department announced the end of all raids targeting alien seamen in the nation’s port cities.

Public opinion had temporarily won the day. Further protections would come in 1952, with the creation of D-1 visas to protect foreign seafarers’ right to shore leave while in U.S. ports, and with the 1965 Immigration Act, which outlawed discrimination of immigrants based on national origin. Despite lingering post World War II anxieties over “alien seamen,” and other threats to seafarers’ access to shore leave as documented by CSR’s annual Shore Leave Surveys, the days of ethnic quotas and dragnet raids along the waterfront seemed to be well behind us.

Suddenly, this progressive timeline of protections for foreign seafarers in U.S. ports no longer seems so stable. The Seamen’s Church Institute will be monitoring this situation closely, with the long arc of historical perspective to guide us.


This article contains excerpts from Johnathan Thayer, “Deserters, Stowaways, and Mala Fide Seamen: Merchant Seamen and the Shaping of U.S. Immigration Policy, 1917-1936,” chapter four of
Sailortowns, Merchant Seamen, and the Shaping of U.S. Citizenship, 1843-1945