Thoughts on Immigration and the Journal of American Ethnic History

I recently read an article in JAEH 33.2 by Hidetaka Hirota about immigration issues in New York State, up to the late 1800s. The article’s title “The Great Entrepot for Mendicants”: Foreign Poverty and Immigration Control in New York State to 1882, focuses primarily on the policies used to deport/support European immigrants that were considered unable to be economically viable. I asked Hirota for his take on the policies and discrimination immigrants face, especially during times when immigrations seem to be ethnically or regionally homogenous. He responded:

“To start with, we should reconsider the whole view of the United States as “the welcoming nation.” It is true that the United States has been the world’s major migrant-receiving nation. At the same time, however, the right to enter America was not unconditionally given to all migrants. Admission into the United States was regulated for much of American history. While receiving a large number of migrants and incorporating them into the nation’s economic, political, and cultural fabrics, the United States constantly developed laws and policies for regulating the quality of newcomers who would join American society. Historians have produced an array of works on how American immigration policy in the past excluded various groups of migrants deemed undesirable on economic, medical, moral, political, or racial grounds.

My article suggests how New York State restricted the landing of, and deported, destitute European immigrants from the eighteenth century onward, illuminating the centrality of economic considerations in the state’s immigration policy and its influence on later federal immigration law. Many people, including professional historians, assume that American borders remained open until anti-Asian racism triggered the enactment of federal laws to restrict Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century. My article demonstrates that immigration control actively functioned at the state level long before the introduction of federal Chinese exclusion. Entry regulation and removal are deeper-seated traditions in the American immigration experience than most people realize. The United States might have been a “land of opportunity” for immigrants, but not for all of them. Some groups of foreigners were prohibited from stepping upon American soil and sent back to their places of origin.

The critical assessment of the United States’ relationship with newcomers provides us with important insight into the issue of “immigrant success.” Again, it is true that many immigrants, often poor and lacking resources upon their arrival, did indeed manage to socially and economically establish themselves in the new land with hard work and thrift, realizing what can be called the American dream. A recent study on Five Points in New York City, the most impoverished slum in nineteenth-century America, reveals that even some of the poorest Irish immigrants in the nation’s poorest neighborhood eventually accumulated a considerable amount of savings.

Yet we need to exercise some caution here. Just like the right to admission into the nation, the opportunity to rise up in the United States was never equally distributed among immigrants. American naturalization law serves as a quick example. The empowerment and incorporation of newcomers was deeply related to their political power. Until the mid-twentieth century, American naturalization law limited the right to become citizens to people of European and African descents, denying Asian immigrants the road to naturalized citizenship and participation in American politics.

European immigrants such as Irish and Italians, to be sure, experienced severe ethnic prejudice and even discriminatory treatments in the United States. But they nevertheless enjoyed a series of tangible legal privileges unavailable for Asian immigrants, including naturalized citizenship and suffrage, which significantly facilitated the integration of European immigrants into American society.

Another important arena in the discussion of immigrant success is social welfare. One of the dominant lines of nativist argument against the poverty of Mexican immigrants today is that they are not working hard enough, compared to earlier European immigrants who overcame hardship and climbed the American economic ladder through individual effort without governmental assistance. Recent studies, however, have revealed firstly that European immigrants in fact received various forms of aid from public welfare programs during the first half of the twentieth century and secondly that the modern American social welfare system have operated in ways which excluded African Americans and non-European immigrants, especially Mexicans, from many of its benefits.

One of the problems with nativist discourse today is that too often it is based on a view which somewhat romanticizes the achievement of earlier European immigrants and attributes the poverty of present Mexican immigrants to their alleged moral failings without acknowledging the history of American social welfare policy and the racial disparity in its makeup and implementation.”

You can read Hirota’s article on JSTOR.