In her article “The Architecture of Race in American Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” author Mai M. Ngai describes the careful racialization of the legal processes of immigration and naturalization in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She explains how nativist politicians lobbied for exclusionary immigration policies using the concepts of race and national origin, and then describes how these laws work to shape the American conceptualization and experience of race in the United States. The quantification of race and nationality reflected American society’s understanding of the two subjects at the time, and the ramifications of the immigration and naturalization laws passed during this period significantly shaped the American experience for those deemed white and those deemed non-white.
By the early 1900’s, nativist U.S. politicians were heavily invested in using a quantification of nationality as the basis for immigration policy. These politicians sought to set a strict number of immigrants allowed into the country then trace the ancestral national lineage of people residing in America and allow immigration from those respective countries proportional to the number of descendants from said country residing in the United States. However, while the law is written as racially neutral, it clearly functioned to give advantage to immigrants and Anglican and Nordic ancestry, who were believed by nativist politicians to be the most superior race. Because of these underlying goals of the immigration law, there were clearly identifiable flaws in them. First, the American population was divided into native and foreign stock for nationality calculations. Descendants of the white population of the U.S. in 1790 were labeled “native stock,” and descendants of whites who immigrated into the U.S. after 1790 were labeled “foreign stock.” This clearly disadvantaged quota allotments for Eastern and Southern Europeans, who were seen as a lower race than Anglican and Nordic Europeans, as most fit into the category of “foreign stock.” Also, the definition of nationality as one’s country of birth did not extend to African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and Native Americans, as these populations were not counted as people of American nationality even if they were born in the United States, negatively affecting the number of allotted quota slots for immigration from countries with these peoples. Scientists studying the topic of national descent admitted to the many significant methodological failures of this study, particularly regarding peoples of mixed national descent and peoples of countries not yet formed. Yet, politicians abandoned the scientific developments surrounding the subject as grounds for justification once it diverged from their agenda, and instead turned to the social understanding of racial and ethnic identity at the time.
These immigration laws greatly impacted the conceptualization of race and nationality in America. For European Americans, nationality and race were separated through these laws. European Americans were granted the opportunity to be accepted into the American identity; because they were labeled permanently white, they were given access to the gateway to a new nationality. For non-Europeans, however, nationality became inseparably linked with race, and so immigrants of Asian and Mexican descent, for example, were relegated to permanent realms of foreignness. These non-Europeans were labeled non-white, and therefore viewed as incapable of assimilating into the American identity. The extensive federal litigation over the topics of race and nationality and how they were linked which centered around the idea of who was white and who was not in America highlights the fact that whiteness is a socially constructed concept which was developed and refined to be used as a weapon of legal exclusion against certain “unpalatable” populations.