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Ed Linenthal
Editor, Journal of American History

Last modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013

Journal of American History examines roots of U.S. immigration policy

May 2, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With the U.S. Congress debating immigration reform, it's instructive to look back to the beginnings of federal immigration law and enforcement in the late 1800s. Historian Hidetaka Hirota finds that the focus on excluding and even deporting immigrants who were deemed undesirable derived from state policies and practices, especially in New York and Massachusetts.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of American History, Hirota, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College, shows how the Immigration Act of 1882, along with the Chinese Exclusion Act adopted the same year, established the pillars that would support immigration restrictions for decades.

"If Chinese exclusion legitimized racism as federal immigration policy, the northeastern states' policies established the economic underpinning of federal restriction laws," he writes.

Journal of American History Vol. 99 No. 4

The Journal of American History cover image is an 1883 illustration from Harperýs Weekly of a boy from a County Kerry workhouse. The British government sent Irish immigrants to America and sometimes gave them clothing and a little money to prevent their exclusion for being paupers.

Print-Quality Photo

The quarterly Journal of American History is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington.

Hirota's essay, "The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government and the Formation of American Immigration Policy," demonstrates that federal immigration policy incorporated state concerns about the cost of accepting immigrants who were destitute. He argues the power given to immigration officials resulted from the established practice of excluding and deporting immigrants under state laws and the joint federal-state enforcement of the 1882 act.

In other articles in the issue:

  • Nathalie Caron and Naomi Wulf review the treatment of the Enlightenment by contemporary American historians, incorporating Enlightenment historiography into public debates about American identity, political culture and religiosity.
  • Kate Masur, by following the life of a remarkable woman named Kate Brown, examines how changing laws, constitutional amendments and access to government employment shaped the lives of African-Americans in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War.
  • Sarah Miller-Davenport writes about the growing role of American evangelicals in public life in the late 1940s, focusing on renewed faith in missionary opportunity created by U.S. involvement in Asia and the Pacific.
  • K. Healan Gaston examines the importance of Cold War anticommunism in the writings of the Jewish thinker Will Herberg, author of the influential 1955 book "Protestant-Catholic-Jew."

See the journal's website for more content, including recent JAH Podcasts in which editor Ed Linenthal chats with Miller-Davenport about her article on American evangelical missionaries in post-World War II Asia and speaks with a panel about the Organization of American Historians' recent report on the presentation of history by the National Park Service.