H-Diplo Article Review 896 on Special Forum on “Nation of Immigrants.”

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H-Diplo Article Review
No. 896
7 November 2019

Article Review Editors: Diane Labrosse and Seth Offenbach
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Special Forum on “Nation of Immigrants.”  Modern American History 2:1 (March 2019):  49-75.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/AR896


Review by Carl Lindskoog, Raritan Valley Community College

When, in February 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it was removing language from its mission statement that described the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” a former USCIS director lamented the change, calling it “a particularly sad turn of history.” To many, the move seemed to symbolize the way the Donald Trump administration was walking away from the United States’ history as a place of opportunity and refuge for immigrants.[1] But the contributors to Modern American History’s “Forum: Nation of Immigrants” suggest that the United States has been and will remain a “nation of immigrants,” despite the Trump administration’s actions, just not the idealized nation that is often evoked in American mythology. In fact, the American past and present is much more complicated, as this diverse collection of essays demonstrates. The five essays in this forum cover a great deal of ground, but all return to common themes: the contradictory nature of U.S. immigration history, the heavy weight of race and racism on migrants and immigration policy, the impact of foreign relations on U.S. immigration law and policy, the opportunities for resistance among migrants and their communities, and the many ways in which immigration history is a precursor to the current immigration moment.

In the opening essay, “Laws for a Nation of Nativists and Immigrants,” Julian Lim and Maddalena Marinari establish a theme that runs through these forum essays: since the late nineteenth century the United States “has always been simultaneously open and closed” to immigrants, “exclusion and inclusion have always occurred in tandem” (49). [2] Adopting this nuanced perspective on immigration history is important because it disrupts the standard narrative in which U.S. history is often divided into a relatively open period for immigration up until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, followed by a closed period lasting until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which then opened the U.S. to immigration once again. In fact, as Lim and Marinari demonstrate, even as 23.5 million immigrants were admitted to the U.S. from the 1880s to the 1920s, policy makers were constructing “an increasingly draconian regime of immigration restriction” that culminated in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (50). However, even after the highly restrictive legislation of 1924, immigration to the U.S. continued, with those gaining admittance reflecting lawmakers’ judgements about which immigrants were desirable, necessary for the purposes of labor, or useful in advancing foreign policy objectives. Similarly, in the period after the opening marked by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, “new forms of restriction and inequality” were built into U.S. immigration law, leading to the current moment in which the mere presence in the U.S. of a large community of unauthorized immigrants is treated as a criminal act, and in which “the nation fortified its borders in new and even more powerful ways” (51). And so, Lim and Marinari conclude, if we want to understand the success Donald Trump has had in using nativism and xenophobia for political purposes, we must examine the United States’ “century-long history of selecting some immigrants over others” (52).

Alan M. Kraut calls this dynamic in which immigrants to the U.S. have been welcomed and at the same time distrusted and resisted, “a paradox at the heart of U.S. immigration history” (53). [3] In the second essay of the forum, “The Perennial Fear of Foreign Bodies,” Kraut focuses on a particular motivation for immigration restriction and exclusion that he argues has been “an intense, recurring insecurity, often neglected by scholars;” namely, “medicalized prejudice or the ‘double helix of health and fear’” (53). Kraut reviews the many moments in which fear concerning perceived public health threats have led native-born Americans to call upon the government to protect them from foreign-born bodies, including both moments in which epidemics have fed nativist backlash and times when literature and popular culture have often driven the anti-immigrant hysteria. Kraut shows that this history is essential context for today’s debates about the supposed threat posed by Syrian and other refugees, which is occurring even while more and more native-born Americans are receiving their medical care from foreign-born medical professionals.

The third essay of the forum by Julio Capó, Jr. complements Kraut’s essay nicely as it documents another kind of migrant body that the U.S. government sometimes sought to exclude: those of “queer foreigners.”[4] But just as U.S. law always sought to exclude some while including others, in “Queer Border Crossings” Capó demonstrates “a jagged relationship between the state and queer border crossers” whereby queer foreigners were “both welcomed and scorned” (59). Queer migrants were sometimes excluded because they represented a threat to the “normative and heteropatriarchal conception of marriage and the family” that lawmakers sought to uphold, while at other moments when “queer embodiment” meant desirability, or when it served U.S. foreign policy interests, queer migrants were admitted (59, 60). By examining lawmakers’ consideration of immigrants’ sexuality as a factor in policy decisions, Capó’s essay sheds new light on familiar areas of immigration history, such as the way in which officials allowed the legal category of those deemed “likely to become a public charge” to blend over into the increasingly clearly defined category of “the homosexual” as grounds for exclusion, or the ways in which U.S. empire influenced immigration policy to both exclude and include queer migrants. Capó also adds to our understanding of the paradox of U.S. immigration history as he shows how in the same year that the U.S. immigration system was opened by the Hart-Celler Act, lawmakers classified “sexual deviate” as a category for exclusion (61).  And by establishing the ways in which lawmakers, courts, and immigration officials established and affirmed “heterosexuality as a privileged prerequisite for recognition by the state,” Capó makes a compelling case that “immigration issues have always been queer issues” (61, 63).

In the fourth essay of the forum we meet Estella Gómez, a Mexican migrant who traveled with her family from San Luis Potosí to Houston in 1920.[5] Tyina Steptoe tells the story of Estella and the Goméz family to illustrate the ways in which Mexican migrants and ethnic Mexicans experienced “liminal integration in Jim Crow Houston” (65). In “Mexican Americans and the Power of Culture in Houston,” Steptoe shows how, despite Mexican Americans’ equal legal status, Anglo Houstonians used cultural differences, particularly religion and language, as a mechanism of exclusion. Whereas in Capó’s telling of immigration history, heteronormative patriarchy emerges as a powerful force shaping immigration law and policy, Steptoe’s study demonstrates how an Anglo-protestant conception of the nation drove exclusion, particularly in education and in civic life. But while Anglo disdain for Mexican cultural practices became the tool nativists used to justify the exclusion of Mexicans, Houston’s Mexican community fought back against Anglo supremacy on what Steptoe calls the “battlefield of culture,” providing a valuable reminder that the law was not always the most important focus for the resistance and the activism of migrants and their communities (69).

In the final essay of the forum, Jana K. Lipman examines Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, as a window into the experience of black immigrants and the role of race and racism in U.S. immigration policy and in the United States more broadly.[6] Lipman skillfully situates the story of the tragic death of Danticat’s uncle Joseph in an immigration prison within the much longer history of anti-black and anti-Haitian immigration policies and practices. Joseph Dantica, like many Haitians before and after him, “walked into this history of bureaucracy, exclusion, and violence,” Lipman argues. Thus, Danticat’s family story represents “a searing indictment of the nation’s border regime and nebulous refugee policy, its exclusionary past and exclusionary present” (74). And yet, Edwidge Danticat’s success in the United States and her ability to remain and raise a family in the country make this a complicated story. Danticat herself is ambivalent about acceptance in the U.S., Lipman observes; perhaps Danticat’s story is emblematic of the ways the United States offers both opportunity and deadly violence, refuge and rejection. “Like for many migrants,” Lipman writes, Danticat’s story “is not a simple binary of acceptance or rejection, but rather a complex dance,” giving voice to the idea of “how these experiences can be even more acute for Haitians who face the challenges all migrants face as well as the cruel realities of American racism” (73).

The essays in this forum can be useful in the undergraduate classroom, providing a valuable introduction to many different elements of U.S. immigration history while also complicating the story students might receive in textbooks and other sources. But migration scholars will also find much that is useful here, particularly the way in which the forum demonstrates the need to reframe our understanding of the “open” and “closed” periods of U.S. immigration history. The essays in this forum also point toward exciting research questions, some of which are more fully explored in the contributors’ other published work. For example, after reading these essays this reviewer wanted to know more about the ways in which migrants and their allies have understood and negotiated the relationship between legal and cultural resistance to exclusion and marginalization. And it seems there is still more to learn about how precisely foreign policy considerations translated into immigration policy at each of these historical moments. Finally, for those searching for a usable past in this current tumultuous moment, readers will find these essays both sobering and encouraging.

Carl Lindskoog is assistant professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College and the author of Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System (University of Florida Press, 2018). His current book project focuses on revolution, migration, and the Sanctuary Movement from Reagan to Trump.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Miriam Jordan, “Is America a ‘Nation of Immigrants’? Immigration Agency Says No.” The New York Times, 22 February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/us/uscis-nation-of-immigrants.html.

[2] Julian Lim and Maddalena Marinari. “Laws for a Nation of Nativists and Immigrants,” Modern American History 2:1 (March 2019) [hereafter MAH]: 49-52.

[3] Alan M. Kraut. “The Perennial Fear of Foreign Bodies.” MAH: 53-57.

[4] Julio Capó, Jr., “Queer Border Crossings,” MAH: 59-63.

[5] Tyina Steptoe, “Mexican Americans and the Power of Culture in Houston,” MAH: 65-69.

[6] Jana K. Lipman, “Immigrant and Black in Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying,” MAH: 71-75; Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).