REJECTED: Border Crossing Records and Histories of Exclusion

By Edward Dunsworth

Mollee West’s weekend was a total disaster.

On a Saturday afternoon late in the summer of 1929, the 25-year old New Yorker put the finishing touches on preparations for the trip she and her two young sons were about to embark on. Kids dressed, bags packed, and train tickets tripled-checked, Mollee, her husband Jack, and the boys set off for Grand Central Station. There, Mollee and the children bid farewell to Jack, who could not afford the time off work, and boarded an overnight train to Toronto, where they were headed to visit Mollee’s cousin and extended family.

Just three weeks after giving birth to her youngest, Mollee was glad to be back on her feet and thrilled to introduce her newborn, Herbert, to the Canadian wing of her family, Jewish émigrés from Russia.

Mollee knew the trip would be a challenge – what with nursing Herbert while trying to keep four-year old Phillip under wraps – but she was sure she could manage and took comfort in the knowledge that once she arrived in Toronto there would plenty of family members eager to help with the children.

On Sunday morning, however, when the train crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo and ground to a halt at the Canadian immigration checkpoint at Bridgeburg, Mollee’s plans were suddenly and unceremoniously dashed.

To her utter shock, the immigration agent to whom Mollee handed her dutifully completed form – while holding Herbert and keeping one eye on Phillip – glanced briefly at the paperwork before declaring that she and her boys would not be permitted to enter Canada. So great was her surprise that she struggled to follow what came out his mouth next – what she gathered was that since she had been born in Russia and was not a naturalized United States citizen, in order to enter Canada legally she would need to travel directly from Russia. It didn’t matter that her children were American-born, that they were merely intending to visit, or that she had more than enough cash ($47) to cover their expenses while in Canada. The officer’s hands were tied.

Dejected, Mollee declined to appeal the officer’s ruling. She gathered her sons and their baggage and awaited return transportation across the river to Buffalo, where she would have to figure out what to do next.

***

This story, in which I have taken some narrative liberties, is drawn entirely from the Canadian Immigration Service’s Report of Admissions and Rejections for 1 September 1929 at Bridgeburg, Ontario, accessed online at Ancestry.ca.

Mollee West and her sons in the border records. “Report of Admissions and Rejections,” Bridgeburg, Ontario, 1 September 1929, Ancestry.ca

In this post, I would like to introduce readers to this incredibly rich source base, which has remarkable potential for historians of Canadian migration and border control, for quantitative and qualitative analyses alike.

The Reports of Admissions and Rejections are broadsheet manifests on which immigration agents recorded details about each non-Canadian who appeared at border checkpoints, seeking to enter the country. They contain a nearly census-level amount of information about each person, including: name, age, sex, relationship of groups of travellers to one another, place of birth, nationality, “race or people,” language, religion, occupation in home country, intended occupation in Canada, destination, amount of money in possession, and mode of transportation.

Manifests for 1908-35 are available at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) on microfilm and partially online, but by far the easiest and most powerful way to utilize these records is via Ancestry.ca. (I should note that manifests from before April 1925 contain much less detail.) Ancestry is, of course, a paid service, but it does offer 14-day free trials and many public institutions provide free access – for example, public libraries in Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, and provincial archives in Montreal and Toronto. Similar records exist, at LAC and on Ancestry, of passenger lists of vessels arriving in Canadian ports from abroad, from 1865 to 1935.

The records not only provide a snapshot of the people appearing at Canada’s border, but also afford readers a window into the interaction between each migrant and the immigration officer deciding whether or not to permit them entry. The final column of the broadsheets indicates whether a traveled was admitted or rejected, the reason for rejection (i.e. a citation of the law or laws precluding admission), whether or not the decision was appealed, and the name or initials of the presiding officer. In the case of Mollee West and her sons, three orders-in-council were cited, the first of which was P.C. 23, referring to Order-in-Council 1914-23, a modified version of the continuous journey regulation issued after a judge had deemed older law invalid. This regulation, most famously used to restrict Asian immigration, stated that travellers seeking to enter Canada must have taken a “continuous journey” from their country of origin or citizenship.

(I must confess to being previously unaware that the continuous journey regulation was also used to bar entry to Europeans. Mollee West was far from alone in this predicament – the list of arrivals are full of European immigrants who were U.S. residents but not citizens being denied entry, with P.C. 23  listed as cause. The regulation was not applied to Americans or British subjects from the white dominions, who were excepted by P.C. 1923-183. Many intriguing questions are raised by this use of the continuous journey regulation, but to say much more about it will require further research.)

The best known quantitative use of the Records of Admissions and Rejections has been undertaken by historical geographer Randy Widdis. Working with an earlier set of microfilmed border agents’ reports (1908-19, all that was available at the time), Widdis gathered a sample of 5,000 migrants arriving to Canada at ports of entry across the country and created a number of tables and maps, demonstrating in particular the statistical distribution of migrants’ birthplaces and destinations in Canada.

Ancestry makes sample-gathering significantly easier than when Widdis assembled his dataset. Not only can you call up a particular year, month, and port of entry within seconds, but each broadsheet is partially transcribed, data which can be easily copied and pasted into a spreadsheet. The following information is transcribed: name, age, estimated birth year, arrival port, date of arrival, birth location, sex, and citizenship. Users are limited to viewing this transcribed information one broadsheet at a time (up to 20 travellers). Thus, you cannot instantly copy and paste, say, all border crossing records from Bridgeburg for 1929, but instead can go through page by page, copying 20 records at a time. That may sound a bit tedious, but of course it is lightning-fast compared to assembling datasets from microfilmed records. Depending on what you are looking for, you could easily have a sample of upwards of 1,000 migrants within an hour or so.

Of course, the possibilities for quantitative analysis would be endlessly richer if all the broadsheets’ information were transcribed. Imagine having a database that would allow researchers to know which immigration laws were most commonly used to justify rejection, or to calculate admission and rejection statistics by religion or “race or people.”

While this dream database does not yet exist, there is still much that can be done with the existing transcribed data. In my own research, for example, I built a sample of 2,584 arrivals of migrant tobacco workers entering Ontario from the United States between 1928 and 1935 (lucky for me, the tobacco workers were often grouped together on their own broadsheets, making copy and pasting the transcribed data much easier). Among other things, this data enabled me to conduct some spatial analysis of tobacco workers’ birthplaces, using the free online tool, Palladio, the results of which are displayed below.

But the richness of this source base goes beyond its quantitative value. As I sought to demonstrate in the opening vignette to this piece, the vast amount of detail in these records also offer remarkable insights into individual stories of migration and encounters with state power at the border.

Such glimpses into the lives of individual migrants and their families allow us to put a human face on policies of immigration restriction. In the case of Mollee West, for example, we see a concrete example of how the continuous journey regulation served to keep migrants and travellers out of Canada – and not only those from south Asia.

To spend any amount of time looking at these records is to perceive, in a visceral way, the immense power wielded at the border, and the myriad ways that it has – for the last century or so – separated families, dashed dreams, and upheld inequities.

“Report of Admissions and Rejections,” Bridgeburg, Ontario (Fort Erie Ferry), September 1929, Ancestry.ca. Note the decisions taken in the right-hand column.

There are endless stories contained in the Records of Admissions and Rejections. They are not hard to find. Mollee West and her boys jumped out at me from page 2 of a randomly selected month of broadsheets from Ontario.

The admissions can be just as fascinating as the rejections. A few pages after the Wests appear six Mormons from various parts of the United States – three men and three women, all single – whose intended occupation in Canada is “missionary.” All six were admitted.

(Sometimes the records are just plain funny, such as when the U.S.-born infant daughter of a University of Toronto professor was brought across the border and her occupation in her home country was listed as “baby.” Her intended occupation in Canada? “Same.”)

Searches in the top online journal databases suggest that few scholars are making use of these records, either for quantitative or qualitative purposes. (For an excellent exception using Passenger Lists, see this article by John Reid.)

If I am correct in this assessment (and please do tell me if I am not!), this is a shame. There are countless more Mollee Wests in the pages of these rich historical records, whose stories of encounter with immigration enforcement can tell us a great deal about the histories of migration and exclusion in this country.

Edward Dunsworth is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at York University and a Contributing Editor at Active History. He tweets @ehewey.

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5 thoughts on “REJECTED: Border Crossing Records and Histories of Exclusion

  1. Maxine Neale

    I have read this piece with great interest as I have been trying to to find the story behind my Great Grandmother’s permanent entry Barr into the United States from Canada due to a previous conviction of lewd behaviour and promiscuity in 1917. Is there any way that I can find access to those criminal records?

  2. Nancy R Cutway

    Just read REJECTED: Border Crossing Records. It went both ways. I recently found a Border Crossing to US from Canada card at Ancestry for a 3rd cousin who attempted to go to Michigan in 1910 at Port Huron. Her occupation was given as “Floorwalker” — defined even today as a supervisor or manager in a department store. The US agent must not have known the term and assumed she meant “streetwalker” — he wrote on the card “Prostitute. Rejected”. I wonder if he told her why he was rejecting her, and the uproar that might have ensued!

  3. Dianna Inkster

    Interesting article! Here’s an even more interesting discussion of an American law that deeply impacted my Grandmother and her 2 children, one, my mother who was also American born and thus first an American citizen. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/17/520517665/that-time-american-women-lost-their-citizenship-because-they-married-foreigners In 1917, My Grandmother married my grandfather, a Canadian living in Alberta born in Ontario who was obviously not eligible for American citizenship since he had never lived there. She lost her American citizenship and I guess automatically acquired Canadian citizenship. What odds? Canadians could still cross into the U.S. easily and even work there until the early 1920s when another law forbade that. In 1929, my grandfather, a farmer went bankrupt. My Grandmother returned to her mother’s home and got a job as a housekeeper for a rich family while her mother who ran a boarding house looked after her grandchildren during the week. My mother, the eldest was American born so the school system didn’t question my grandmother’s citizenship. Then, my uncle, Canadian born entered the school system in ketchican, Alaska. The triggered a reaction from American immigration. The immigration official told my American born Grandmother to leave the U.S. as she was not a citizen now and could no longer work there. Her mother, she and one child were all American born. What an unfair law. My Grandmother returned to Depression era Alberta in about 1933 where the family kept body and soul together by varous means.. Did Canada steal women’s citizenship, too? If so, when did this law end? With a family history like this,is it any wonder I question a lot of immigration practises?

  4. Sylvia R Smith

    So interesting. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Last night I watched an old Henry Fonda film from 1957 called “12 Angry Men.” I realized how the entrenched racism of privileged white men is the same now as it was over half a century ago.

    Anyway, a great article. I hope teachers are reading this and encouraging students to make connections.

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