Capitalism: An “American” Success Story

In the history of modern (post-1875) US immigration, the state enacted numerous exclusionary policies that, in the words of historians Erika Lee and Judy Yung, “privileged men over women, whites over Asians, and elites over workers.” While most recent histories acknowledge the intersectional nature of exclusionary policies, I have been struck by the number and consistency of class-based privileges some immigrants—such as Chinese merchants, Sikhs, and Russians to name only a few—enjoyed. All of this surely contributed to a sort of triumphantalist capitalist ideology.

First, some background: Lee and Yung, in their work Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, argue that the past aggregate immigration policies of the US form both an exclusive and an inclusive narrative. And while one might differ to a degree with their thesis (viewing that past as either more or less exclusionary), it seems hardly possible to refute it totally. Indeed, I’m one of the lucky ones whose ancestors were let in.

And yet I tend to fall much more on the exclusionary side of the spectrum. As a quick tally, I jotted down all of the acts or policies since the first exclusionary federal policy in 1875. These include the years 1875, 1882, 1885, 1891, 1903, 1907, 1917, 1919, 1921, 1924, 1934, 1935, 1946, and 1952. And I know this is by no means exhaustive. These dates encompass everything from Chinese Exclusion of 1882, Teddy Roosevelt’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907, the various Alien Land Laws (denying the rights of Asians to own property), and the McCarren-Walter Act of 1952 which explicitly barred gays and lesbians along with “subversives.”

Perhaps the most common method excluding an “undesirable” from entry was the accusation of “likely to become a public charge” (LPC). This was leveled by an immigrant official who believed the individual was likely to require public assistance to survive; the belief was that they might take the assistance of someone already considered a US citizen. (This is a complete myth concerning immigrants, “illegal” or otherwise. Martha Gardner, for instance, notes that recent immigrants proportionately tried to access and did access less government assistance during the Great Depression than regular US citizens.) As might be deduced here, LPC was a class-based exclusion (that was often racialized, gendered, and relied upon other assumptions such as nativity). It was a label that was applied to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Africans, Russians, Jews, South Asians (Indians for example), some Europeans, and Mexicans.

However, it could not often be labeled at immigrants who could post a bond (often $1000) to enter the US or who had enough pocket money to be deemed sufficiently middle class. For example, all Chinese were excluded in 1882—except for merchants and their families.

Moreover, those deemed LPC could be deported well after admittance into the US. By 1917, one could be deported a full five years after arrival if labeled LPC. Certainly, becoming “American” was not an easy or clear path. Thus, the US was able to remove any (former) immigrant who was seen as an economic failure. Only those who succeeded were sure to be retained.

Even if an immigrant had been successful at his or her profession back in their country of origin, they could be deported. A Romanian tailoress—who had earned a living for herself and her two children as a single mother back home—was rejected in 1910 because she did not match immigration officials’ expectations of womanly work. Had she been a domestic worker, she might have not been labeled LPC.

Immigrants faced several levels of discrimination as they attempted to enter the US—and being poor was one of the strongest barriers to entry. Third-class passengers faced much greater scrutiny than those in the second or first-class cabins. They frequently faced more and longer interrogations. Second or first class immigrants often faced no questions at all. For example, one working-class Italian immigrant in the early 1900s was rejected entry because he was judged to be scrawny and too white with “quite thin” ears by an immigration official. For this supposed undesirable, the official wrote, “even if he were able [to work], employers would not hire” him. Not only were many non-Northwestern European immigrants barred entry at the border because of border-level discriminations, but they were also barred because of the predicted internal prejudices of American employers.

All of this, from 1875 onwards, contributed to an impression of American capitalist success. The nation-state and the culture were spared seeing many of the “failures” the chosen economic structure has relied upon. They were sent packing, back home, away from, in the words of Aristide Zolberg, “a nation by design.” It might be noted that some working-class immigrants have been welcomed, in a fashion. But, it seems to me, most often these immigrants work out of sight and, thus, out of mind—domestic workers inside the homes of elites or farm workers away from the cities where most of us eat the cheap food they pick. Instead, those with the best chance to “succeed” in a developing capitalist economy, those with cash in hand or with economic support in some form, were welcomed largely at the expense of the poor and huddled masses.


4 thoughts on “Capitalism: An “American” Success Story

  1. Nice round-up…prep for a future lecture for your students, perhaps?

  2. Actually, kind of. Trying to think through a ton of reading I’ve been doing lately and coming up with some broader conclusion ideas. The damn list of years that exclusionary policies were passed really got to me as I began making my list. It didn’t really strike me until then. I had been reading all these books, each mentioning a number of things, and it finally started to hit me just how many there were when I started to compile them.

  3. Way late to the game, but I am continuing to mull this post over. I’m not getting anywhere solid with it yet, but one thing that I just thought about that might fit into a similar category.

    So, in addition to large amounts of (and large restrictions on) external immigration, there have been large amounts of internal immigration within the United States. In the pre-Civil War era, there were large flows of migrants from South to Midwest–larger even than the flows from New England to Midwest, in some cases. Of course there are differences in type here, but the pattern of people moving from the less industrialized South to the rapidly industrializing North, and its booming cities, has parallels with some external immigration–from say Ireland, or China, or Mexico if not England and Germany. But the incentives and choice to move are similar.

    Which brings me back towards the subject of your post: the restrictions in place for internal vs external migration were somewhat dissimilar, ranging from basically nonexistent (on white southerners, perhaps) to more complete though extralegal (on black southerners post-reconstruction). Which I thought was interesting, but I don’t know much more than that, being much less familiar with the literature than yourself. What do you think?

  4. These are interesting things to think over. Comparing internal migrants and immigrants is useful, but I’ve tended to think they’re more different than similar. First, there’s the whole issue of whiteness. Franco-Belgians, for example, were recruited by the textile industry in the Northeast because they were the skilled of the skilled. Franco-Belgians, the Irish, Italians, etc. all became or were considered “white” to some degree and would inherit this.

    Forced migration is another problem with America’s context of racial slavery. David Brion Davis points out an astounding fact: “In the 320 years from 1500 to 1820, every European immigrant who arrived in the New World was matched by at least two African slaves.” That brings us towards your point of Southern out-migration. A lot of those folks were white, but a lot were black (I’m unclear on percentages). I do know that most of the black migrants were poor, rural sharecroppers and were thus in a different position than the Chinese merchants. They were also disproportionately hired in the lowest jobs in northern factories. Many in the black community found themselves restricted by the urban crisis of the 50s and 60s (that goes into today).

    Post-1965 immigration seems to make this contrast even starker. Many south Asians come into the US with a lot of education behind them. Yes, one can argue, they face prejudice and discrimination, but their yearly incomes is massive in comparison to African Americans. Jamillah Kareem points out in Muslim American Women that the median family income (in 1999) for African American families was $17,000 and for South Asians it was $49,000.

    Incentive and choice, to me, seem to be the most similar characteristic of movement. Better jobs and a “better life” are cited by a diverse set of people. But, this is not to say that each group isn’t restricted in particular ways that this means they all would RATHER move than stay if given equal opportunities. (i.e. I’m thinking of Mexican migrant workers here, and how people in the US tend to personally blame “illegal” immigrants for being in “their” country.)

    In sum, I think there’s something to be gained by comparing internal vs. external (im)migration (discussions of citizenship are particularly interesting to compare such as in Canaday’s Straight State or Ngai’s Impossible Subjects). Immigration is certainly one of THE major themes that must be discussed in American history since it relates to practically every aspect of social life.

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