Excerpt: National Insecurities, by Deirdre M. Moloney

For over a century, deportation and exclusion have defined eligibility for citizenship in the United States and, in turn, have shaped what it means to be American. In a broad analysis of policy from 1882 to present, National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882 places current debates about immigration issues in historical context. Focusing on several ethnic groups, Deirdre Moloney closely examines how gender and race led to differences in the implementation of U.S. immigration policy as well as how poverty, sexuality, health, and ideologies were regulated at the borders. 

In the following excerpt from National Insecurities, Moloney explains how race and gender enter into her analysis. (pp. 3-8)


Immigrant rights in the United States constitute a major element of a long historical debate over what constitutional and other protections are afforded to noncitizens, especially when the process of deportation or removal is defined as an administrative, not criminal, process, and thus offers insufficient enumerated protections for those facing hearings and possible expulsion. Yet, although governments around the world could and did intervene in cases that pertained to their citizens living in the United States, they were largely unable to monitor closely or extend resources to those outside their own borders in any systematic or sustained way.

[National Insecurities] is a broad historical analysis of United States immigration exclusion and deportation policy. It demonstrates the historical origins of many immigration policy issues in the United States today. I argue that deportation policy has served as a social filter, by defining eligibility for citizenship in the United States and fundamentally shaping the subsequent composition of the American population. I use an intersectional approach to examine how race, gender, religion, and class interacted with one another in the creation and implementation of immigration policy. Racial and gender ideologies and practices converged in ways that compounded the effects of each, although that process was uneven, differed by context, and changed over time. Historically, race and gender have had the most significant impact on the creation of immigration policy and its outcomes; but those factors have always been intertwined with larger social concerns about foreign policy and national security, the economy, scientific and medical issues, morality, and attitudes about class, religion, and citizenship.[1]

Race was used explicitly to define eligibility for admission and citizenship in 1790, when eligibility for naturalization or obtaining U.S. citizenship was denied to nonwhite immigrants. The 1875 Page Law and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act further constricted the ability of nonwhite immigrants to settle in the United States. I argue that, even when race was not an explicit basis of enforcement, immigrants were subject to regulation by racially based proxy methods, including the differential regulation of disease, economic status, and religious beliefs by the creation of new categories and definitions and by unstated assumptions.  The last-named category, through a constitutionally protected one, was regulated at the borders when immigrants held beliefs outside the mainstream Christian traditions. Those immigrants tended to be nonwhite or otherwise associated with non-European religious traditions.

Race was not a stable concept in immigration policy, in part because the definitions of groups and their rights changed according to chronological period, legal definitions that varied by state, federal policies, changes in citizenship eligibility, and local contexts. The eugenics-based ideologies that rose alongside American territorial expansion influenced immigration typologies that subsided in the post-World War II era. But in the past few decades, there has been a resurgence of racially based ideologies, often veiled in racially neutral rhetoric, whether in anti-immigrant invectives against irregular (or undocumented) immigrants, who are predominantly nonwhite, or virulent anti-Muslim sentiment.

Gender ideologies often intersected with race to render nonwhite women particularly vulnerable to exclusion and deportation. The treatment of nonmarital sexual relations at the border was clearly regulated differentially on the basis of race. For much of the twentieth century, inappropriate sexual behavior, or immorality, was defined largely as female—male clients, unmarried fathers, or “procurers” were far less likely to be regulated at the borders than were their female partners. Mexican men proved an exception: they were more likely than white men to be punished by authorities for their involvement in prostitution. The relationship of gender to race was dynamic over time. For example, the “likely to become a public charge” (LPC) provision was a feminized one that affected women of many races and nationalities before the 1930s. After that, federal officials employed it as a strategy to deport Mexican laborers, who were predominantly male. In other immigration circumstances, however, such as the separation of young children from their unmarried mothers, race or nationality did not seem to play a decisive factor. In contrast, gender was less critical than race in the differential regulation of illness and in the creation of diagnoses with the purpose of excluding and deporting immigrants on medical grounds. Race and gender ideologies, however, both played major roles in how religion was regulated at the borders.

Labor and economic exigencies often intersected with racial definitions in creating immigration policy. For example, Mexicans were exempt from numerical restrictions based on race and national origins and initially defined as white in the federal census. Mexicans became more vital to the agricultural economy of the West once Chinese and Japanese laborers were excluded in 1882 and 1907 respectively. Even in the early twentieth century, far fewer Mexicans were recorded in immigration statistics than other major immigrant groups.

When the agricultural economy became depressed beginning in the 1920s, however, Mexican immigrants became increasingly vulnerable. In 1930 they were redefined as nonwhite in the federal census. As Kelly Lytle Hernández argues in her recent history of the U.S. Border Patrol, the agency, established in 1924, deepened inequities in the treatment of Mexican immigrants by providing employers with a new mechanism to control their workers. Filipinos also became more vulnerable during this Great Depression. Because of the status as a U.S. colony (or protectorate), Filipinos had been exempt from Asian exclusion laws. But in 1934, the Tydings-McGuffie Act provided for Philippine independence, while simultaneously severely reducing the number of annual immigrants permitted from the country.[2]

Although early federal immigration statistics based on race and nationality are difficult to analyze closely because of continually shifting definitions of race, nationality, and other categories, and although aggregate exclusion or deportation numbers remain small, some trends do emerge that confirm racial bias. From 1895 to 1904, immigrants who were from Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, and Italy had higher rates of exclusion than those from Northern Europe. Japanese had a 3 percent rate; Syrian and Turkish immigrants had just below a 4 percent exclusion rate in this period; Mexicans, 2 percent; and Italians, 1.4 percent, compared to English and Welch at 0.87 percent and Scandinavians at a scant 0.14 percent. Deportation rates remained lower than exclusion, at that point, and occurred only within a year of arrival.[3]

Perhaps most striking in this early-era data is the low number of Mexicans recorded in immigration statistics, relative to their large numerical presence as agricultural workers in the Southwest and elsewhere. In that period, fewer than 3,000 Mexicans were recorded as entering the United States at border stations, as compared to 1.1 million Italians, nearly 78,000 Japanese, and 43,000 Syrians and Turkish immigrants. This suggests that immigration and other federal officials viewed them as migrants rather than immigrants—the way they viewed people arriving by sea—and understood that they were not moving across borders primarily through immigration stations. The reclassification of Mexicans into immigrants would begin to shift only in the years leading to the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 and remained contingent on economic needs, since Mexicans were not subject to the numerical quotas imposed by the 1920s national-origins legislation.[4]

Race was less instrumental in those deportations based on political and social ideologies. In the Red Scare following World War I, most of those targeted for deportation were Russian and Eastern and Southern European men who were legally defined as white. That trend reflected the federal authorities’ assumptions that those who were neither male nor white were not major political actors. Indeed, given that women had just achieved suffrage and many African Americans and others remained disenfranchised, that attitude reflected reality in the strictest sense of political activity. Women and nonwhites continued to be marginalized in radical and other nontraditional social movements. But as the Emma Goldman, Marcus Garvey, and Claudia Jones cases demonstrate, activists who were nonwhite and/or female who challenged prevailing economic and political ideologies in highly public ways were sometimes targeted for deportation. In those three cases, gender ideologies also played an important role. For example, federal authorities attempted to use the Mann Act against Garvey, Goldman’s deportation appeal hinged on her argument that she derived U.S. citizenship through male family members, and Jones’s vulnerability arose in part because of her status as a black woman in the white- and male-dominated Communist Party.

My project places several of these issues in transnational perspective by examining immigrant exclusion and deportation policy in the United States from the late nineteenth century until the World War II era, comparing trends among immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It focuses on the consequences of an 1882 immigration law, first revised in 1891, that excluded or deported immigrants deemed “likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or contagious disease, persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor, involving moral turpitude, polygamists, and also any person whose ticket or passage has been paid for with the money of another.”[5] [National Insecurities] integrates social history with public policy history. It emphasizes the perspectives of immigrants and their advocates as they experienced immigration policy and defended their rights as noncitizens. The richly detailed case files woven into this narrative vividly illustrate the impact that particular decisions had on immigrants’ lives. I situate deportation politics in the context of broader Progressive Era and New Deal trends, including economic developments, international relations, gender relations and ideologies, political rights, racial attitudes, and religious life. Early debates over immigrant rights contributed to the modern understanding of universal human rights that emerged following World War II. I illustrate how larger social and political forces were also influential—those include foreign policy concerns, family reunification considerations, the efforts and reaction of immigrant advocacy organizations, and public opinion.[6]


From National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882, by Deirdre M. Moloney. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Deirdre M. Moloney is director of fellowships advising at Princeton University and author of National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882 (2012) and American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era (2002).

  1. [1]On intersectionality, see Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” and “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”; McCall, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” chart, 171. This concept emphasizes the accumulating effects that categories such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation have on people’s experiences.
  2. [2]Mexican Americans were categorized differently by race both over time, by locality, by class position, and under federal law. In 1930 the U.S. federal census classified Mexican Americans as nonwhite but then rescinded that decision prior to the 1940 census. In recent decades, Hispanics can choose among given racial identifications, and since 2000 can opt for more than one racial category. See Rodriguez, Changing Race; Haney-López, White by Law; Hernández, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol; Gomez, Manifest Destinies.
  3. [3]See United States, “Annual Report of the Commissioner-General if Immigration” (1895-1904). The U.S. government reclassified many groups by race in 1899 and grouped immigrants by nationality in several various ways in this period. Immigration totals for groups do not always correlate to others in various tables in a given year. For example, there are separate categories for Turkey in Asia and Turkey in Europe, but it remains unclear how they were differentiated. As I began my research I planned to draw more fully on these data. In these early years, however, the reporting and categorization of the data are inconsistent enough to warrant their use only for general trends and broad comparative purposes, not for more detailed comparisons. Percentages need to be viewed int he context of small total numbers for some groups.
  4. [4]Ibid.
  5. [5]See INS Web site, appendix I. “Immigration and Naturalization Legislation,” http://www.ins.gov/graphics/aboutms/statistics/statyrbook96/appendix.pdf, accessed June 20, 2002.
  6. [6]When I began this project, I had planned to undertake a systematic sampling of immigration case files. But I soon realized that such a methodology would be impossible because of the lack of comprehensive finding aids for the case records I use and the significant number of missing case and administrative files in the collection. There is an old basic index card entry system for the case records on microfilm.