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.