Hidetaka Hirota. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 302 S. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-061921-3.
Reviewed by Julio Decker
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (July, 2017)
H. Hirota: Expelling the Poor
The history of the modern immigration system in the United States has mostly been written as one of the expansion of federal state power in the late nineteenth century. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the first comprehensive federal immigration law, both passed in 1882, the modern nation-state created an increasingly complex system that screened immigrants for physical, mental, moral, and social ‘defects’ to exclude and deport those deemed unfit. Hidetaka Hirota, in an ambitious and impressive new monograph, complicates this story.
Taking Gerald Neuman’s assessment that the idea that prior to the 1880s American borders were mostly open is a “myth” as a starting point, Hirota sets out to explore the early history of state immigration policies. Gerald L. Neuman, Strangers to the Constitution: Immigrants, Borders, and Fundamental Law, Princeton 1996. Complemented with material from other coastal states, the book mostly focuses on Massachusetts and New York, the two states that devised the most comprehensive systems of exclusion and deportation. Hirota traces these policies back to the poor laws of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that allowed municipalities and states to expel the transient poor and remove paupers without ties to local communities. From the 1840s, with a growing number of destitute and impoverished Catholic Irish immigrants arriving on the Atlantic Seaboard, the state of Massachusetts used this legal framework to deport immigrants who had become dependent on state aid. In New York, Massachusetts, and other coastal states, immigration officials also exerted control at the border, preventing those deemed paupers, mentally ill, or even just “likely to become a public charge” from landing. Driven by anti-Irish sentiment that resulted in electoral victories of the nativist Know-Nothing Movement in the 1850s, New York and Massachusetts state officials enforced these regulations harshly. Hirota demonstrates that the discretionary nature of the laws resulted in officials having “tremendous power” over migrants’ lives and would “disregard their basic rights” (p. 206). In some cases, they even did not refrain from illegal expulsions, deporting Irish inmates of charitable institutions without adhering to legal procedure or with their American-born children. They cared little about the conditions migrants had to endure on their Atlantic passage or the post-deportation lives they were facing. Eventually, Hirota argues, the categories of deviance justifying exclusion and deportation, the organizational structures and the personnel enforcing the law were integrated into the framework of federal immigration legislation in the 1880s.
Hirota makes two important interventions with this well-organized and clearly written book. Firstly, he demonstrates that at least in these two states, comprehensive systems of border control and “post-entry social control” in the form of deportation, to use Daniel Kanstroom’s term, existed long before the passage of the first federal Immigration Act in 1882. Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History, Cambridge 2007, p. 2. He thus revises historians’ claims that it was Chinese exclusion that framed later legislation targeting European migrants. In his strong narrative, densely corroborated by evidence without overwhelming the reader, Hirota similarly provides the prehistory of immigration control at Ellis Island, demonstrating that policies applied there had indeed been shaped at preceding landing stations at Castle Garden and in Boston. For immigration control at Ellis Island, see Vincent J. Cannato, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, New York 2009; Amy L. Fairchild, Science at the Borders: Immigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force, Baltimore 2003.
Secondly, Hirota tells a transnational history of state responses to poverty that centers on migrants’ experiences. In the book’s most impressive feature, through research drawing on archives in the United States, Britain, and Ireland, he reconstructs the trajectories of migratory movements across the Atlantic. Instead of unidirectional movement to North America, migration manifested in a complex system of control and expulsion in which migrants tried to navigate several countries’ legal and administrative constraints. Irish migrants could encounter the force field of poverty, expulsion, and migration in various configurations: as assisted emigrants, they were sent by the workhouses of Ireland to North America via British ports. On the Atlantic seaboard, some were excluded at the border while others were placed in charitable institutions, to be then deported back to British ports such as Liverpool, only to be deported again to Ireland, often ending up in workhouses. The monograph thus provides an insight into the politics of pauperism, state control, and inclusion and exclusion – not just at the point where borders were crossed, but within national boundaries where officials exerted their power over those deemed to be unproductive and thus ‘undeserving’ of state support. Hirota manages to contextualize policies with the debates that shaped the treatment of poor people, covering British colonial policies of profit extraction as well as debates about economic independence and wage labor as markers of white citizenship in the United States.
Some of the analytical categories, however, could have been historicized further. As Hirota limits himself to a definition of nativism as “a set of hostile ideas, attitudes, and actions against foreigners, which were founded upon the fear of their impact on American society” (p. 6), negative depictions of and policies discriminating against migrants seem to emerge as an ahistorical reaction, despite the author’s efforts to contextualize American attitudes towards the Irish. It could have been productive to investigate the racial status of the Irish in more detail, as it changed considerably over time, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. This might have helped to explore how concepts of pauperism and the ‘undeserving poor’ hinged on the racialized hierarchy that denied full whiteness to the Irish. Similarly, the reader wonders about the relationship of Atlantic migration control to the wider Irish diaspora in the Anglophone world: did penal transportation and assisted emigration to Australasia inform British and American attitudes towards Irish migrants? However, these remarks should be regarded as an indication of the book’s potential to inspire further research rather than a fundamental criticism of the impressive body of evidence and convincing argument it provides. “Expelling the Poor” is an important and timely intervention: it explores the prehistory of twentieth-century immigration regulation and deportation, uncovers the continuities regarding laws, policies, and their enforcement that were shaped in Massachusetts and New York in the middle of the nineteenth century, and lets historians rethink questions of citizenship, inclusion, and state control over people and the lives they lived.
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Julio Decker. Review of Hirota, Hidetaka, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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