Reading Response: Development of Modern American Federal Immigration Control

BradleyCollege Papers, Graduate Work0 Comments

The authors for this week’s readings have focused on detailing and expanding our understanding of the development of modern immigration control. Erika Lee positions the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as the primary force driving the creation of federal immigration controls and ideology, politics, and the law of “gatekeeping.” Beth Lew-Williams builds on Lee’s position by discussing the difference between restriction and exclusion, presenting 1888 as the most significant year of change in immigration policy. Hidetaka Hirota shifts the conversation to one with a national perspective by placing the conversation about immigration controls in the context of preexisting state policies and by showing how those policies influenced, created and implemented federal immigration policies. Anna Law, in turn, builds on Hirota’s analysis by showing that pre-antebellum states had directed and meaningful policies regarding migration and freedom of movement, disputing the “open borders” trope she states is common in American immigration literature.

In “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924,” Erika Lee focuses narrowly on the West Coast and describes the process of public fears regarding Chinese labor migration. In her analysis, she describes the exclusion of certain groups of Chinese based on economic circumstances. She brings up the idea of “whiteness,” and while she does not elaborate, race seems less relevant here than labor concerns. Chinese migrants were primarily cyclical, returning to China with earned income rather than intending to settle in the U.S. While public concerns on the West Coast did expand to include other Asian immigrants who did intend to settle, the fears that people on the West Coast are shown to have mostly mirror those that Hidetaka Hirota describes in his article, “”The Great Entrepot for Mendicants:” Foreign Poverty and Immigration Control in New York State to 1882,” in which he describes the frustrations Northeasterners felt as they were inundated with European paupers. The desire to exclude those paupers was not based on race, but on the fact that they were not economically self-sufficient.

So, on the one hand, people on the West Coast were facing labor competition, and on the other, people on the East Coast were facing a potential financial crisis resulting from an overflow of poor migrants that would have to rely on state and private aid. The arguments that Beth Lew-Williams presents in “Before Restriction Became Exclusion: America’s Experiment in Diplomatic Immigration Control” support this argument. While her primary purpose is to draw a distinction between a temporary restriction of Chinese labor immigration in 1882 and the actual exclusion of all Chinese immigration after 1888, her analysis supports the focus of public attention on the West Coast on economic, rather than racial, concerns.

In his previously mentioned article as well as in “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” Hirota makes the important point that federal immigration law did not appear out of a vacuum. It was not the major break from tradition that Lee and Lew-Williams so heavily emphasized. Hirota’s focus on the role of the New York and Massachusetts in defining what would become federal immigration law and their roles in subsequently enforcing those laws creates a continuity that was previously lacking. His choice in focusing on New York City was reasonable, given that for the time period covered, that was the port of entry for the majority of migrants. Hirota recognizes that West Coast, as well as Northeastern concerns, played a role in shaping federal immigration policies, but he fails to address the impact this has on southern states if any. As Anna Law mentions in “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration Federalism and the Early American State,” the North and South had different economic concerns regarding immigration and free movement of peoples. This was, however, somewhat beyond the scope of what he intended to focus on and would likely have been more detrimental than helpful to the point he was trying to prove.

 

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