We're not all in the same boat

"People are dying in the Mediterranean. It’s time to save them."

Leonie Rushforth
16 October 2020, 9.55am
The Immigrant.
Chaplin. BFI images.

"It touched me more than any other film I made", Chaplin later said of The Immigrant, filmed in 1917, the same year the US government passed a draconian immigration act that was to radically reduce immigration into America.

The Immigrant is a short (24 minutes) first set on board an immigrant ship making for New York’s Ellis Island and later in a restaurant in the city itself. Its protagonist is the familiar figure of the Tramp, that brilliant provocation aimed at all oppressive authorities and their bully enforcers, who appear in The Immigrant as card sharps, immigration officials and a gigantic waiter twice the size of the Tramp.

The ordeal of the journey is briefly and memorably recorded in shots of people trying to sleep on the overcrowded deck, and in the motif of a young woman comforting and protecting her widowed mother. The Tramp falls instantly in love in a wonderful affirmation of human feeling; even in these desperate circumstances love can be found. They part on the docks but when later they find each other again by chance in a restaurant it’s heart-lifting confirmation of the fact that fate, history perhaps, is in league with the Tramp.

Chaplin’s status as a US resident was itself connected with The Immigrant later in his life. In the film, no sooner do the immigrants see the Statue of Liberty than they are roped off, confined in a tired and frightened crowd. In the course of the entry processing that follows, the Tramp kicks an immigration official and this scene was cited in 1952 as evidence of Chaplin’s anti-Americanism at a hearing that eventually refused him a re-entry visa to the US after a visit to England. He went to live in Switzerland.

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The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, was passed as the US prepared to enter WW1; it was effectively an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its successor the still more restrictive Geary act of 1892, which extended the enforcement of immigration controls from the borders into the interior of the country. People of Chinese origin were required to register for and carry a Certificate of Residence, a kind of internal passport. Failure to do so led to detention and deportation. A legal challenge to the Act mounted by Chinese residents on the grounds that it was unconstitutional failed in the Supreme Court.

AE-Chinese Exclusion Act poster, 1892. | Public Domain.

In February 2020, Chinese Americans were instrumental in setting up Pivot to Peace – a coalition of forces opposed to America’s new cold war against China. Its spokeswoman, lawyer Julie Tang, explained on a recent No Cold War peace forum that Chinese Americans are feeling betrayed and alarmed by the orchestrated rise in targeted hostility – FBI chief Christopher Wray’s recent declaration, for example, that all Chinese Americans are ‘potential spies’. 100+ Chinese American scientists are currently being prosecuted for inexplicably minor offences and a further 1000 Chinese Americans are under investigation for ‘economic crimes’. She described these espionage campaigns as ‘oppressive and chilling’.

The US State Department has, needless to say, been active in this regard, tweeting on September 25:

The Chinese Communist Party and its proxies aim to make Americans receptive to Beijing’s form of authoritarianism.

Many Chinese Americans now fear little stands in the way of their sudden designation as ‘proxies’.


In August this year, the artist Banksy provided funds for a search and rescue ship to patrol the Mediterranean. The Louise Michel upholds maritime law – the duty of any vessel to come to the rescue of anyone in distress on the sea – in the absence of an EU sea presence committed to saving lives. When the short-lived EU funded project Mare Nostrum came to an end in 2014, it was replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton whose primary objective was less rescue than border control.

We’re Not All In The Same Boat. | Banksy, Calais.

In its first year of operation, the number of people who drowned in the Mediterranean rose dramatically. Triton ran until 2018 when Operation Themis came into being. With Themis, the EU took a further step away from maritime rescue by adding surveillance to the border control remit.

In September 2020 there were 6 recorded shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and nearly 200 deaths. The Louise Michel said earlier this month: we have become accustomed to the EU ignoring mayday calls.

At the time of writing, a sister ship, the Alan Kurdi, is making its way to port in Marseille, having been refused entry by Italy and Malta. Marseille’s recently elected progressive mayor, Michele Rubirola had this to say:

"Des gens meurent en Méditerranée. Il est temps de les sauver. Je demande à ‪@EmmanuelMacron de nous accompagner et à l'État de prendre ses responsabilités. #Marseille, ville d'accueil et solidaire, ouvrira son port."

[People are dying in the Mediterranean. It’s time to save them. I am asking Emmanuel Macron to join us, and the state to assume its responsibilities. The city of Marseille opens its arms and its port in solidarity.]

This piece was first published in the October 1 Splinters edition.

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