Negotiating Immigration Reform in an Age of Restriction

AHA Session 168
Immigration and Ethnic History Society 3
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Conference Room B (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Madeline Hsu, University of Texas at Austin
Lon Kurashige, University of Southern California

Session Abstract

As political scientist Aristide Zolberg reminds us, the U.S. is “a nation of immigrants, to be sure, but not just any immigrants.” Since the foundation of the United States, Americans have carefully selected who might join them, and they remain selective to this day. Yet, while the history of American immigration laws and the motives underlying them has been richly documented, our knowledge of the impact and the responses of the restricted to these laws remains limited. This panel seeks to shift our lens on American immigration laws away from the restrictionists to the restricted to provide a more nuanced perspective on the passage of American immigration laws.

While WWII and the new geopolitical landscape that emerged at the end of the war provided restricted groups with an opportunity to challenge the existing immigration system, their mobilization did not always pay off. After the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion laws in 1943, Indian and Korean Americans mobilized to win naturalization and immigration rights for their groups. Yet, as Hong’s presentation demonstrates, the success of an Indian immigration bill in 1946 and the failure of a concurrent Korean measure reflect how the intersection between Asian independence and American interests in Asia proved a tenuous basis for the repeal of Asian exclusion. More broadly, the Indian and Korean American campaigns suggest how repeal legislation for Asian colonial groups became embedded in longer-standing transnational anti-colonial struggles for homeland independence. 

In 1952, when Congress embarked on an overhaul of the American immigration system for the first time since 1924, immigration reform advocates had a new opportunity to fight for less restrictive immigration laws. Concerned about the restrictionist tone of the omnibus bill, Senator Herbert Lehman of New York worked to create a broad coalition that included Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant agencies dealing with immigration as well as Asian American, Eastern European American, and Southern European American organizations. As Marinari’s paper shows, conflicts of interest, the tension between Truman’s internationalism and McCarran’s isolationism, and a smear campaign against critics of restriction divided the alliance and proved how difficult it was to create a united front for liberal immigration reform.

Focusing on Chicano and Mexican transnational mobilization for the rights of undocumented migrants starting in the 1970s, Minian’s presentation traces the history of their battle with nativists to guarantee basic rights to undocumented migrants. As her paper demonstrates, Chicano and Mexican organizations carried on their fight on both sides of the border, securing rights in court and raising awareness among migrants about their rights in both countries. While the Latino community and the nativists fought to a more or less even standoff for about a decade, the tide shifted in favor of restrictionists by 1986.

Taken together, the three presenters examine the challenges that immigration reformers faced in challenging restriction, the compromises they reached, and the pragmatic decisions they made to achieve their goals. Like immigration reform advocates today, they took advantage of any opportunity for reform, but their accomplishments were often ambivalent and inconsistent.

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