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Against the Importation of 'Hordes of Coolies'

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 19, 2015 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Print of crowded Mulberry Bend in New York City, 1888

This presentation, Against the Importation of "Hordes of Coolies": Alien Contract Labor Law in American Immigration History, explores the significance of contract labor in American immigration history. Since the antebellum period, Americans opposed the immigration of foreign workers who would allegedly degrade the dignity of labor and lower American wage standards. The opposition became especially strong in the case of contract workers—people immigrating under prearranged contract with American employers to perform labor in the United States. When the American labor movement became particularly active in the late nineteenth century, American workers’ antipathy to so-called “alien contract labor” resulted in the passage of the federal act to ban the landing of foreign contract workers. This presentation demonstrates how alien contract labor provoked anti-immigrant sentiment in multiple parts of the nation after the Civil War, becoming the arena where cultural and economic prejudice against various groups of immigrants—Asians, Europeans, and Mexicans alike—converged. Despite its relatively overlooked status in American immigration scholarship, alien contract labor law was a crucial piece in American history that helped transform immigration control from a regional issue for coastal and borderland states to a matter of national concern.