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Before Ellis Island: The Origins of American Immigration Policy

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 7, 2013 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Drawing of disheveled child holding a train ticket, captioned "Assisted immigrant from Kerry Workhouse"

In this talk, Hirota introduced an overview of his current book project, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Origins of American Immigration Policy. The project fundamentally revises the history of American immigration policy. In contrast to previous studies’ traditional focus on anti-Asian racism on the West Coast, the book locates the roots of American immigration control in anti-Irish nativism and economics in nineteenth-century New York and Massachusetts. The project examines how these states built upon colonial poor laws to develop policies for excluding and deporting destitute foreigners in response to the influx of impoverished Irish men and women during the first half of the nineteenth century, laying the foundations for federal immigration policy that emerged in the 1880s.

Based on one of the chapters in the book, the presentation introduced in detail state-level immigration control in Massachusetts during the 1850s, when anti-Irish nativism reached its highest point. By using the overseas deportation of American citizens of Irish descent, Hirota demonstrated how state-level immigration control in this period of radical nativism left a decisive and enduring impact on the nature of American immigration policy. Specifically, state officials’ practice of citizen deportation set precedents for the assertion of unlimited power by American immigration officers in determining the excludability and deportability of people whom they considered undesirable aliens, a crucial characteristic of later federal immigration control.