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“Proceed Instantly:” the Bureau of Immigration and the U.S.’s First Act of World War I

Headline from The Tacoma Times, April 6,


It’s a little-known fact that the Bureau of Immigration played a key role in the U.S.’s first act of World War I. 

In March of 1917, it had become clear that the U.S.’s entry into the World War on the side of the Allies was imminent. To prepare for this event, the Bureau of Immigration, then under the Department of Labor, drafted plans to take custody of every German officer and crewman aboard German merchant ships anchored in U.S. ports.

By the start of April 1917, as Congress moved closer to declaring war on Germany, the secretary of labor ordered the Bureau of Immigration to place all of its men on duty at ports holding German ships. The Bureau of Immigration prepared its boarding vessels, boats normally used to transport employees to passenger liners for shipboard immigrant inspections, so that immigration officials could board the German vessels “at a moment’s notice.”

In Washington, the secretary of labor and the Bureau’s leaders waited for word from the Capitol. At 3:14 a.m. on April 6, 1917, the secretary received the message that Congress had declared war against Germany. One minute later, immigration officers at ports around the continental U.S., in Puerto Rico, and in Hawaii received a pre-arranged telegraph ordering them to “proceed instantly.” The Bureau of Immigration then set its prearranged plan in motion.

At the same time, the secretary of the treasury sent a similar order to U.S. customs collectors, who seized the ships from which immigration officers removed German officers and crew.

A copy of the telegraph sent by the secretary of labor to Bureau of Immigration officials on duty at U.S. ports holding German ships on April 6, 1917.

Immigration officials removed German officers and crewmen at over a dozen ports without any violence or major incidents. According to the commissioner of immigration’s report of the events, immigration officers treated the Germans with “every kindness and courtesy possible under the circumstances.”

Removing the German officers and crewmen proved to be just one of the Bureau of Immigration’s many tasks during the war. For example, in the following days, the Bureau temporarily detained those officers and crewmen at immigration stations around the country, including Ellis Island and Angel Island.

Eventually, the Bureau transferred the German officers and crewmen to a more permanent internment center at Hot Springs, North Carolina. At the Hot Springs camp, German officers received the “kind of quarters and food that first-class passengers might reasonably expect” and the crewmen were treated as “immigrant class” passengers.

The Bureau of Immigration oversaw between 2,000-3,000 German internees in the Hot Springs camp until July 1, 1918, when it transferred custody of the German officers and crewmen to the War Department. 

German crewmen photographed at the Hot Springs detention camp, 1918.
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