The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law A by ramhood17

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									Angélique CHENAL                                                                                  1



The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A reexamination of
the Immigration Act of 1924. By Mae M.Ngai.



On February 1929, the chief statistician of the Census bureau and the chairman of the Quota
Board, Dr Joseph A. Hill presented, for the third time a plan for the restriction of immigration
with quotas based on national origins within the framework of the Immigration Act of 1924.
The two previous plans were questioned because of their hardship and mainly because of their
accuracy. This criticism remained in 1929. The fact that quotas were based on national origins
and their accuracy were criticized but Congress accepted them justifying" the principle of
national origins as fair and non-discriminatory" but asked for more and more precision. Hill
defended them saying that " the present computations [were] as near as [they could] get on this
matter to determining the national origins, practically". Thus, the quotas were proclaimed on
March 1929. However, as the author Mae M. Ngai points it out, this law was not merely a law of
restriction based on quotas, it comprised more than that. Indeed, it was also a law that classified
people according their national origins. As she says it, “this process was a race-based nativism"
and that is what Mae M. Ngai tries to explain in this chapter. His first emphasis is made on the
creation of "national origins": When and why do they appear? To understand it, she needs to
remind us of a part of American history.

Indeed, the first census of the United States was in 1790 and did not include categories about
“national origins or ancestry". The foreign-born were differentiated since 1850 and “the places of
birth of parents of the native-born" since 1890. Immigration was recorded since 1820 and
classified according to origins since 1899 under a category called "races and peoples". On top of
that, after World War I, many boundaries changed in Europe. Then, it needed to “reattribute
origins” according the world of 1920. Thus, categories such as "national origins", "national
stock" or "nationality" became adapted. Race was not clearly evoked but the census was based
on it. For example, the board "national stock" did not mean people born in the United States as
we could think it but people "who descended from the White population of the United States in
1790". As far as foreign stock is concerned, it defined "the descendants of all Whites who
immigrated to the United States after 1790". Only the category "nationality” seems to have been
well defined: according to country of birth. Nevertheless, it did not concern the American
nationality and excluded the non-Europeans and the non-Whites living in the United States. This
divided Europe itself but also "Europe from the non-Europeans world". The world was classified
by countries, nationalities and races. J. Trevor, in favor of a coalition of patriotic societies, listed
in a table fifty-three countries for the category "country of origin" and five-colored races. But
few cared. Qualifying people by race was not outraging for most people and the census was
seldom questioned. By the way, Mae M. Ngai adds "Census data gave the quotas an imprimatur
that was nearly unimpeachable". Restrictionists like F. Walker and nativists always talked about
it as “scientific evidence”. This was a fine support for their ideas according to which
immigration threatened the native birthrate. In a way, Dr Joseph A. Hill also served the
restrictionist movement when he added "questions to the census of 1910 and 1920" in order to
know differences between races and nationalities in depth. Nevertheless, he faced a lot of
difficulties in determining national origins mainly because of the first census very unspecified
Angélique CHENAL                                                                                  2

even appealing to a genealogist and an immigration historian for help but retorted that" errors in
the process would not significantly affect the outcome".

Afterwards, Mae M. Ngai focuses on the second pillar of the Immigration Act of 1924: the
ineligibility to citizenship in effect until 1952 and applied to the peoples of the Far East Nations.
Several Japanese and Asian Indians managed to obtain naturalized citizenship during the first two
decades of the twentieth century. Asiatic people often went to a Federal Court and justified their
status as white persons with the aid of scientific explanation but mainly their demands were
rejected like in the case of Ozawa or Thind. Asians were considered as racially inassimilable and
here again we can perceive how much the law about national origins implied much more than a
nationality. It was deeper than that. Indeed, it was more a problem of race and color and Asiatics
were not the only concerned. Mexican people also did. Their main distinctness was their
difficulty to be ranked." They fit no clear type”. The United States could not declare them as
ineligible to citizenship contrary to the Asiatics partly because of the history which links the two
countries and also because of their racial status .Secretary of Labor talked about the Mexican
people as " a mixed stock" and said that individuals had " a limited knowledge of their racial
composition" that it appeared impossible to determine their racial origins. By the late 1920's,
restrictions on Mexican immigration was imposed with strict measures like literacy tests and
made immigration drop but illegal entries increase. The Border Patrol was created in 1925 to
regulate them and "In 1929, Congress made unlawful entry a felony”. Strangely, the illegal
entries were not treated the same way for everybody. Illegal European immigration was not
considered as detrimental as illegal Mexican immigration. For that matter, the word illegal
became completely linked to Mexicans. When people thought about anything linked to Mexican,
they thought illegal. Nevertheless, even if they were viewed as "illegal", they also were a useful
“migratory workforce" chiefly in agriculture during the 1920's. They became "a disposable labour
force" and the United Sates deported and repatriated them according to their needs during the
Great Depression. As far as Mexicans are concerned, the law did not clearly prevent them from
citizenship because the State did not have the means to do so but "created the problem of illegal
immigration" by its restrictive policy which remains "at the center of the modern Mexican race
problem".


Immigration was a theme which already pleased me. Therefore, I was first interested in this text.
After reading the chapter, I really enjoyed it but I was aware of the difficulty of the subject. I read
it several times, and it did not appear so difficult in fact, all the more that the author named each
part of her reflection. I cannot reproach this text so much things, maybe some words that I did not
know. Indeed, it is well structured. Notwithstanding, I found Mae M.Ngai repeats some ideas. In
her first part concerning natural origins, she comes back to ideas she already evokes in her
introduction and it can be a bit tedious. Maybe she could have tried to cut down in order to give
information only in the first part. But it depends, some people could find that is a good way for
understanding better. Indeed, she reminds the readers of her conductor lead, and it can be clearer
for them. Obviously, it is subjective and it can be a good process for some people and a low one
for others.
I also appreciated the introduction of the author and the references at the bottom of some pages.
In a way, it showed Mae M.Ngai did many researches about the subject and that the text could be
considered as a very serious work. There is a profusion of references and it appears to be very
rewarding. I think it is a right help for further reading about the topic. On top of that, the author
Angélique CHENAL                                                                               3

accompanied her chapter with pictures, extracts from comic strips and even tables about the
immigration quotas on national origin in the 1920’s. It gave a lively side to the reading and we
could better enter in the context and in the subject and I liked this addition by the author.
The main difficulty was, according to me, the profusion of information to be treated. It was not
simple at all to sum up all she wanted to make understand to their readers without forgetting
something. Yet it did not prevent this chapter from making realize the readers of the harshness of
the Immigration Act of 1924. The ideas, which the law included, did not seem to offend so much
people in the 1920’s than it does nowadays and it really hit me. Obviously, some people these
days still agree with such ideas and that is why this reading is significant. We could reflect on it
precisely because it can be seen as something still topical, notably for the problem of Mexican
Immigration. After such a reading, we really need to think about that and I think we could not
prevent us from comparing with today’s situation.


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