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Writing American Immigration History (June 2019): Americans: Controlling Immigration

by Sara S. Goek

Americans: Controlling Immigration

Narratives of immigration restriction often begin with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This is the case in Roger Daniels’s book, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882, which provides a succinct and accessible summary of law and policy. However, while the Chinese Exclusion Act did usher in a new era of federal restrictions, the story starts earlier and owes its origins to nativism. As an ideology, nativism is a combination of nationalism and xenophobia, with a significant strain of racism. The term can describe an attitude, or the movement to act against immigrants on the grounds of that attitude. John Higham defines nativism as “intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its foreign (i.e., ‘un-American’) connections” in his classic work on that subject, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925, first published in 1955. Peter Schrag’s Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism takes a broader perspective, connecting three centuries of debate over the nature of American identity to successive waves of immigration and restriction.

A significant new contribution to the early history of restrictions, Hidetaka Hirota’s Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy demonstrates the influence of state policies on federal laws. He argues that class bias motivated the deportations of Irish paupers from the northeast in the mid-nineteenth century, and shows that the officials involved often had little regard for actual law. While nativists on the East Coast concerned themselves first with the influx of poor Irish immigrants, and then eastern and southern Europeans, those on the West Coast were preoccupied with the Chinese. Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era takes up that story, which, title notwithstanding, begins in the preexclusion era. Like Hirota, her work bridges the political and the personal, focusing not only on the laws themselves but on their effects on Chinese American life.

Heightened awareness of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century led the federal government to appoint the Dillingham Commission in 1907. Katherine Benton-Cohen’s recent work, Inventing the Immigration Problem, is the first to consider in depth the members of that commission and its full forty-one-volume output, as well as associated unpublished records. What emerges is a picture of a more nuanced and diverse set of viewpoints than comes through in the oft-cited summary recommendations. Situating the Commission within the context of the Progressive Era, Benton-Cohen argues that it shaped our contemporary view of immigration as a “problem” the federal government should fix. The 1917 Immigration Act, 1921 Quota Act, and 1924 Immigration Act all built on the Dillingham Commission’s work, disregarding much of the nuance. Those acts shifted policy from a focus on regulation —the screening of immigrants—to one of restriction—the attempt to reduce numbers of arrivals and exclude entire groups of people. The 1917 Act created the Asiatic Barred Zone, from which no immigrants would be admitted, and established a literacy test to regulate the entry of others. The 1921 and 1924 laws expanded constraints, establishing a numerical cap on the total number of immigrants and creating quotas on the grounds of national origin. The quotas as formalized in 1924 derived from calculations of the makeup of the American population at the base year of 1890, with 2 percent of each nationality present in that year allotted for the quota. Congress tried to argue for the fair and accurate nature of the quotas, but choosing 1890 as the base meant deliberately privileging northern Europeans, allocating only 12 percent of the 165,000 total quota entries to “new immigrant” groups from southern and eastern Europe. The Act also barred persons “ineligible for citizenship,” including Asian immigrants, altogether on the grounds that there was no point in admitting them if they could never be naturalized citizens.

World War II marked the beginnings of a shift. The internment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, was both an extension of prewar anti-Asian policies and an illustration of a perceived link between immigration and national security that would bloom as the century wore on. While internment could be the subject of its own essay, for the purposes of this one an interesting text is Ronald Takaki’s Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. Takaki not only considers the plight of Japanese Americans and others whose loyalty was considered suspect, but places their experiences alongside those of other marginalized groups, telling the story of the war and its contradictions from their perspective, and setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement to come. Wartime labor shortages also led to the creation of the Bracero Program in 1942 to bring temporary migrant laborers from Mexico. Though begun as a wartime measure, over the course of its twenty-two years the government authorized more than 4.7 million short-term contracts, the bulk of them in the final decade (1954–64). Deborah Cohen’s Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico assesses the lasting impact of the program on its participants. In line with the transnational turn in historical scholarship, she considers the primary actors in the creation of the program on both sides of the border, and the migrants themselves who moved back and forth across that border, and whose ties—social and economic—likewise bridged it.

The national origins system continued after the war, and gradually liberalized. Under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 restrictions loosened with revisions of non-quota categories, orders of preference for entry, and the abolition of the ban on Asian immigration and naturalization (though only allocating token quotas to Asian nations). National quotas remained in place until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, which finally abolished racial and ethnic discrimination in immigration policy. It opened the door for a more globalized flow through the privileging of skills and family reunification. However, it maintained the principle of numerical caps and, for the first time, restricted numbers from the Western Hemisphere. On the post-1965 period, Mary C. Waters and Reed Ueda’s edited volume, The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965, offers the most comprehensive overview. It contains thematic chapters on issues of policy and identity, as well as chapters on major demographic groups by nationality/region, highlighting the diversity of modern immigration.

Restriction had the effect of creating borderlands and enforcement mechanisms. Ellis Island (in operation 1892–1954) and Angel Island (1910–40) were two such sites. The former has entered popular memory as the starting point of many Euro-American stories, as Ronald Bayor discusses in Encountering Ellis Island. However, as Erika Lee and Judy Yung point out in Angel Island, the key distinction between the two sites was that while Ellis Island enforced regulations on entry, Angel Island existed primarily to exclude people barred from citizenship on the basis of race. The focus on sites of entry overlooks the fact that enforcement started before potential immigrants ever boarded a ship through a system of “remote control.” The medical inspections at ports of departure and the issuing of visas and passports all served to extend the reach of restrictions, as Elliott Young demonstrates in his chapter in A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered (see below).

Controls at seaports led to the development of new migrant routes across land borders. The sheer scale made enforcement difficult, as Patrick Ettinger shows in Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration. He explores twin narratives of change and continuity at the Canadian and Mexican borders. On one hand, the period between the 1880s and 1920s witnessed a shift from limited border regulations to the implementation of more controls. On the other hand, cross-border movements of people and goods continued apace outside those controls. Ettinger closes with the early years of the Border Patrol, established in 1924. Kelly Lytle Hernandez picks up that story in Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol, which focuses on its first fifty years, and how its sometimes-violent interactions had racial, gendered, and class-based dimensions. The Border Patrol belonged to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the subject of S. Deborah Kang’s recent book The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917–1954. Her institutional history argues that the INS not only enforced laws but actively constructed interpretations of them. In doing so, it negotiated between the competing priorities of multiple groups, between nativism and the need for cross-border movement to serve labor and communities, and between laws in theory and practice. Rachel St. John’s appropriately titled Line in the Sand offers a different perspective in focusing on the border itself, and the way the US and Mexico created it. All these works underscore the evolving nature of the border and its interpretations.

Drawing and reinforcing that line in the sand essentially produced undocumented migration as it exists today. Mae Ngai argues that restriction created “impossible subjects”: people whose presence “was simultaneously a social reality and a legal impossibility—a subject barred from citizenship and without rights.” Her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America considers the laws, their implementation, and their effect on migrants’ lives. Focusing on the restriction era, 1924 to 1965, she presents the cases of Filipino migrants, Mexican workers under the Bracero program, Japanese American internment, and Chinese immigrants during the Cold War, as each fell into slightly different categories of “impossible subjects.” These cases all raise questions of race, citizenship, and belonging. Though she closes with the Hart-Cellar Act, its provisions ensured that illegal immigration would continue. Building on this work, a new contribution to our understanding of how the restriction era continues to resonate in the present is A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered, edited by Maddalena Marinari, Madeline Y. Hsu, and Maria Cristina Garcia. The chapters bring together perspectives on law, labor, and belonging.

A final area of policy that deserves mention is that related to refugees and asylum seekers. In 1951 the United Nations defined a refugee as someone fearful of persecution in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group. It has since expanded the scope of the definition and protocols, while the limited American interpretations of them have evolved. Roger Daniels has termed it the “wild card” in immigration policy, and it is often a factor in foreign policy. For much of the post–World War II period, the refugee program primarily served those fleeing communist governments opposed to American interests. The 1980 Refugee Act officially accepted the UN definition and for the first time recognized the right to asylum, while also introducing stricter controls on admissions of refugees and asylum seekers (the distinction between the two being that an asylee applies for refugee status when already on US soil or at point of entry, while a refugee applies for admission from afar). In Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War, Carl Bon Tempo considers the intertwining of refugee policy and foreign policy, and the implementation of those policies. David Haines traces a broader history in Safe Haven?: A History of Refugees in America, addressing both the changes in policy and the experiences of refugees themselves. While the journeys that bring them to America are often longer and more difficult than those of economic migrants, they share similar struggles in adjusting to life on arrival, the subject of the next section.

Works Cited