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10 facts about the origins of American deportation policy

One of the most important political, economic, legal, and ethical questions in the United States today is immigrant deportation policy. Where did the policy come from? When and why was it introduced in the United States? Who was the target of removal law? How were deportation laws enforced? In Expelling the Poor, historian Hidetaka Hirota, visiting assistant professor of history at the City University of New York-City College, answers these questions in revealing the roots of immigration restriction in the United States. Below he provides ten things to understand about the origins of American deportation policy.

  1. Historians have long assumed that immigration to the United States was free from regulation until the federal government started restricting Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century. This is a myth. In fact, local and state governments regulated immigration since the foundation of the nation in the eighteenth century. Immigration control is more deeply rooted in American history than it has been thought.
  2. The roots of immigration control in America lay in the English poor law, which allowed each parish to banish transient beggars. English settlers in American colonies enacted similar laws to prohibit the landing of indigent passengers and deport the migrant poor back to their places of origin. After the American Revolution, Atlantic seaboard states built upon the colonial poor law to develop laws to restrict the immigration of destitute Europeans. American immigration control emerged as a measure to protect public treasuries from the expenses of supporting needy foreigners.
  3. The large influx of the impoverished Irish in the mid-nineteenth century brought about significance changes in state immigration policy. Up to the 1840s, state governments had left the implementation of passenger law to municipal officials, and law enforcement had remained lax. Driven by strong anti-Irish nativism, two Atlantic seaboard states, New York and Massachusetts, tightened passenger regulation in the late 1840s by establishing state-run agencies charged with supervising immigration. Anti-Irish nativism played a decisive role in the formation of state-level immigration control.
    Petition, Boston City Council Joint Committee on Alien Passengers Records. Used with permission of the City of Boston Archives.
  4. Although New York and Massachusetts pioneered state-level immigration control, the two states’ policies were not identical. In Massachusetts, where anti-Irish nativism grew exceptionally intense due to the state’s strong Protestant and Anglo cultural traditions, immigration policy was entirely focused on reducing undesirable immigration through landing regulation and deportation. By contrast, New York only regulated foreigners’ admission and did not deport those already residing in the state for most of the nineteenth century due to the political power of immigrants. The duties of immigration officials in New York also had humanitarian dimensions, such as the protection of admitted newcomers from fraudsters.
  5. State-level immigration control did not develop in other major seaboard states for various reasons. In Pennsylvania, divisions among nativist politicians impeded the growth of public policy for immigration control. In southern states, such as Maryland and Louisiana, legislators’ strong interests in securing white settlers checked any attempt to discourage European immigration. In California, legislators passed several laws to restrict Chinese immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, but the State Supreme Court repeatedly struck them down. California failed to establish sustainable systems of state-level immigration control.
  6. Just as opponents of Muslim immigration today framed immigration restriction as a matter of national security, anti-Irish nativists in the nineteenth century viewed the immigration of destitute Catholic Irish as an economic, religious, and moral invasion of American society by the British government, which repeatedly financed the passage of Irish paupers to North America. Abbott Lawrence, a Massachusetts politician, reportedly declared that he would deport all Irish paupers “up the Thames to London, and land them opposite the Parliament House, under its very eaves, if possible, while Parliament was in session!”
  7. The enforcement of deportation policy became extremely coercive in Massachusetts when nativist politician Know Nothings controlled the state legislature in the 1850s. Agents of the Know Nothings raided public almshouses, kidnapping Irish-born inmates and illegally shipping them to Europe without fulfilling procedural requirements. Deportees unlawfully expelled abroad included American citizens of Irish descent, such as native-born children of immigrants and naturalized adult immigrants.
  8. The question of who deserved to be American in the nineteenth century was behind the aggressive enforcement of deportation law against the Irish poor. Economic self-sufficiency based on free, independent labor defined the quality of ideal Americans. Dependent on public charity, Irish paupers appeared to destabilize the integrity of American free labor society. Anti-Irish prejudice also critically strengthened their hopelessness as people who would not become productive citizens. Deeply entangled with economic ideals, state immigration policy determined who deserved to belong to America in the most literal sense by physically removing from the nation those deemed undeserving.
  9. State deportation policy had significant transnational dimensions. Many Irish deportees were first sent to Liverpool. The British poor law provided for the forcible expulsion of the Irish poor to Ireland. Under this law, Irish paupers sent to Liverpool were further deported to Ireland. In Ireland, local poor-law officials almost refused to accommodate the returned paupers, who they believed no longer belonged to Ireland. Irish officials even considered sending the deportees back to the United States. American deportation policy was part of a wider system of pauper regulation in the Atlantic world, which in practice made the Irish migrant poor and stateless.
  10. State immigration laws in New York and Massachusetts eventually developed into national immigration policy. In 1876, when the US Supreme Court declared state passenger law unconstitutional, officials in New York and Massachusetts launched a campaign to nationalize state laws. The campaign resulted in the passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1882, the first legislation to regulate general immigration at the national level. Modeled on existing state laws in New York and Massachusetts, the act prohibited the landing of paupers, lunatics, and criminals, setting the groundwork for subsequent federal laws for immigrant exclusion and deportation. The northeastern states’ laws laid the foundations for American immigration policy.

Featured image credit: “Ocean Sunset” by John Hilliard. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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