In the Hands of the People: Negotiating US Immigration Policy from Below

AHA Session 33
Immigration and Ethnic History Society 2
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Alan Kraut, American University
Lucy Salyer, University of New Hampshire

Session Abstract

This panel suggests how individuals affected by discriminatory laws and policies found that by acting collectively, they could ameliorate those provisions of discriminatory legislation that most menaced their rights and interests. Presenters focus on three particular areas where the law significantly shaped Americans’ and foreigners’ lives: labor, business, and marriage. In oftentimes forgotten ways, small actors in the past stood their ground, when American policies and enforcers attempted to strip rights from them. As individuals, they usually fail, but through collective efforts, they have successfully pushed against interests and forces much larger than themselves. This panel provides new perspectives on agency in the history of US immigration law by analyzing how ordinary Americans and immigrants endorsed, challenged, and manipulated the law outside policymakers’ offices.

The panelists examine collective efforts influencing the inclusions and exclusions of American immigration law. Hidetake Hirota focuses on the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law, showing how fear of foreign workers inspired racial nationalism among US voters in all states. Hirota argues that question of immigration control was elevated from a regional issue confined to coastal states to one that unified white natives against racialized foreigners. Heather Lee shifts the conversation from the advocates to the subjects of restrictive immigration laws. Lee demonstrates that the numerous court appeals and challenges brought by the Chinese changed the enforcement of Chinese exclusion laws in meaningful ways in the early twentieth century. The Chinese created breathing room under the suffocating blanket of Chinese Exclusion, which aimed to end most, if not all, their emigration to the United States. Julian Lim demonstrates how immigrants leveraged federal immigration laws against discriminatory state laws. She traces how the War Brides Acts of the post-World War II era created an opening for certain U.S. soldiers to bring their foreign wives and fiancees to the United States. In particular, she examines the interracial unions between American soldiers - both black and white servicemen - and European and Asian women, and the ways in which such federally-sanctioned interracial unions challenged state anti-miscegenation laws.

These histories disrupt the clean lines of historical specialization, bringing together the fields of foreign policy, legal history, labor history, social history, and the history of capitalism to bear on immigration history. The panel also offers an alternative conceptualization of agency, one that gives weight to how actors leveraged their differing subject positions.

These histories of the American past urge us to pay attention to the small scale strategies of people on the ground. In moment of heightened racial nationalism, the proclamations from the Oval Office and the halls of Congress provide parts of the whole. The average advocate and subject create meaning and intention out of federal legislation. On the battlegrounds of immigration offices, these parties negotiate the actual borders between inclusion and exclusion. This panel is sponsored by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. Two senior historians of American immigration, Alan Kraut and Lucy Salyer, will serve as chair and commentator, respectively.

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