Alien Contract Labor Law and the Problem of Imported Labor in Gilded Age America

Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
Hidetaka Hirota, Sophia University
This paper examines the intersections of business, labor, and immigration law in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1885, American workers’ antipathy to business owners’ practice of importing Asian, Mexican, Canadian, and European workers under contract to perform labor in the United States resulted in the passage of the federal Foran Act, which prohibited the importation of foreign contract workers. This so-called alien contract labor law has long been neglected by historians, who have paid disproportionate attention to other major pieces of immigration legislation of the period, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the admission of Chinese laborers, and the Immigration Act of 1882, which excluded paupers, the mentally ill, and criminals. By analyzing the introduction and enforcement of the alien contract labor law from the 1880s and the 1920s, this paper rescues the law from scholarly neglect, demonstrating how it transformed immigration control in the United States from a regional concern chiefly involving only coastal states to an issue of national significance advocated by Americans not only in coastal states but also in border and interior states. Also, by analyzing repeated failures to implement the law due to demands for cheap labor from corporations and business owners, the paper suggests that the alien contract labor law, which affected an enormous range of immigrants of diverse nationalities, was decisive in establishing the fundamental divide in American history between nativism against foreigners and the nation’s reliance on their labor, a reality that still shapes America today.
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