Monday, April 1, 2013

The Long Career of Immigration Control in America

Hidetaka Hirota

A detail of Carol M. Highsmith's aerial view of the Ellis
Island immigration station. Courtesy of the
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.
The recent publication of books on Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in California—Vincent J. Cannato, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (HarperCollins, 2009); Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford University Press, 2010)—reminds us of aspects of the American immigration experience that cannot be overlooked.

At these landing stations immigrants were inspected and often detained under the provisions of federal immigration law. Those of undesirable character, such as paupers, people “likely to become a public charge,” and “feeble-minded persons,” were denied landing and ordered to return to their countries of origin. To Chinese immigrants, a separate set of exclusion and deportation laws applied between 1882 and 1943. 

Where did these federal restriction laws come from? While episodes of immigration control at the federally run landing stations might sound familiar to people interested in United States history, immigration policy before Ellis Island and Angel Island is not so well known, even to American historians.

Some of the roots of American immigration control can be traced back to earlier immigration laws in seaboard states. Since the 18th century, coastal states adopted policies for preventing the landing of destitute passengers and foreign paupers. While New York and Massachusetts were most successful in institutionalizing immigrant exclusion (denial of admission), the Bay State went further by implementing policies for deporting immigrant paupers already in the state. These state policies laid the foundations for federal immigration law that developed from the late 19th century onward.

As important as the succession of law from state to federal levels was how state officials enforced immigration control. In Massachusetts, for example, officials made little distinction between noncitizens and naturalized citizens in deporting Irish immigrant paupers. Immigrants were also deported without necessary court warrants, thus illegally. In criticizing the manner of removal in the state, a Boston newspaper declared in 1855 that humans were being sent from Massachusetts to the other side of the Atlantic with less formality and documentation than “the sending of a tub of butter, or a barrel of apples, from Fitchburg to Boston.”

The deportation of citizens, the coercive treatment of undesirable foreigners, and the inhumanity associated with removal proceedings all characterized the implementation of later federal immigration law, especially when it came to Asians and Mexicans.

Hidetaka Hirota is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College. He is the author of “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Journal of American History 99 (March 2013), winner of the 2012 Organization of American Historians Louis Pelzer Memorial Award.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I have wondered about the pre-Ellis Island policies for some time and am deeply appreciative of your work here. Great examples of how practices develop historically.

Gabriel Loiacono said...

It's fun to see your work here, Hide. I'm curious, too, in the vein of James Barrett's "Americanization from the Bottom Up," how much Irish-American's memory or non-memory of this institutional past affected its implementation towards Asians, Mexicans, and others. But that's probably a hard question to answer. Good work!