“The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law” Reading: Caleigh Deane

“The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law” analyzes the Immigration Act of 1924 by breaking down the topic into three distinct sections, including the invention of National Origins, Eligibility to Citizenship and the Rule of Racial Unassimilability, and From Conquered Natives to Illegal Aliens. Following the introduction, the first section discusses the incomplete and inaccurate nature of the quota system. The first census in 1790 did not include vital information such as ancestral roots of native born Americans. In addition, immigration was not even documented correctly until 1820. Geographical alterations following World War I also affected the classification of many immigrants. Race of course played a large role in the labeling of said immigrants, even if it was not officially recognized at the time. The Quota Board eventually utilized the racial categories on the Census to develop more “accurate” quota statistics. Those of Asian descent were excluded entirely from such proceedings, as they completely seen as “ineligible” to gain citizenship in the United States. In prior years, Japan, China, India, and Siam each had a quota of 100, but upon review, they were totally banned from legal entry into America. A specific inclination developed as the Quota Board developed specific numbers for each country, being that eastern and southern European countries were much less desirable than Northern Europeans in context to immigration. Francis Walker, the President of MIT, developed a theory regarding immigration into the United States. He believed that immigrant populations were “retarding” the American growth rate. Similar to what conservatives today feel, Walker believed that immigrants were stealing jobs from hardworking Americans. These American workers in turn had less children, because they were not able to provide for a larger family without a job. This slowly but surely diminished the developing American population, stemming from the entry of foreign immigrants in the United States. His ideas were derived from the more traditional viewpoint that America was perfectly acceptable in its current state, and did not need to change to accommodate lesser-than immigrants. Joseph A. Hill, the chief statistician of the Census Bureau, shared a plethora of Walkers opinions and beliefs, heavily participating in the restrictionist movement. Hill strongly desired to further classify race in terms of immigration, which stemmed from scientific race theory. He added many questions to the 1910 and 1920 census, in order to establish an immigrant’s ability to assimilate easily into America. While race science was justifiable in the nineteenth century, and a jumping-off point for many racists, demographic data served the same purpose during the twentieth century. At this point in America, information such as the condition of immigrant inmates in prison was quantified; if the immigrants were worse off than the American prisoners, this seemingly proved their inferiority in general. Neither Hill or Walker aggressively advocated for restrictionism, and did not commonly take a political stance on such issues.  Hill himself recognized that there were inherent flaws in classifying the origins of Native born Americans, and was dedicated to resolving the issue. Another obstacle that the quote Board did not consider was that they did not consider the interlocking of cultures within instances such as intermarriage; the two people’s histories did not stay separate, but rather mixed together in their union.

The second section of the reading, Eligibility to Citizenship and the Rule of Racial Unassimilability, the topic of Asian immigrants was discussed. This section begins by truthfully stating that half of the world was hastily banned from immigration to the United States on the sole basis of their race and ethnicity. The only two groups that were exempt from this ban were the Japanese, who established the Gentleman’s Agreement with the United States, and Filipinos, who lived within an American-controlled territory. The major issue that determined who was able to immigrate to the United States was the “white” or “black” question. Those who were successfully classified as either black or white could gain American citizenship. This posed problems for those of, Mexican, Syrian, Asian Indian, Japanese, and Armenian descent. Most commonly, the decision was made on a case by case basis. The case of Ozawa v. United States and United States v. Thind are prime examples of when immigrants questioned their denial of citizenship in the presence of a higher power. The instance of Ozawa v. United States was able to clarify that someone’s skin color alone was not sufficient evidence to classify someone’s race. Throughout cases such as these, the Court refused to acknowledge that race did not have a scientific explanation, meaning one race was not biologically superior to another; they also did not understand the difference between Caucasian and white. In the case of United States v. Thind, his claim that he was white was quickly dismissed, even though he stated that he was of Aryan descent. Thind’s case helped the court to understand the lack of scientific basis in regard to race, as they rejected his argument, even though he provided supposedly concrete evidence. Because of this development, all European immigrants were now classified as white, which was a large step for over half the continent. Eventually, Asian was developed as racial delineation in itself, based off of the court rulings from 1922-23 and the Immigration Act of 1924.

The third and last section, From Conquered Natives to Illegal Aliensdetails a struggle similar to that of Asian immigrants, but in the context of Mexicans. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo weighed heavily in many court cases regarding legal citizenships of Mexican Americans. In 1848, the Northern half of Mexico was relinquished to America, with all of its residents automatically receiving American citizenship unless the conquered evacuated the area. Similar to those of Asian descent, Mexican Americans did not cleanly fit into the category of white or black. The case of Ricardo Rodriguez, an immigrant of Mexican descent who applied for citizenship after residing in America for ten years, made it evident that Mexicans could not be excluded from immigration privileges. He was not affiliated with Native Americans, and had a white man advocate on his behalf. While he did not know the constitution by heart, this white man promised that, based on his character, he would uphold the American ways. This announcement, along with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, allowed Rodriguez citizenship. While this was a victory in of itself, unfortunately, Immigration remined difficult for Mexicans. Mexican Americans constituted a large majority of illegal immigrants those who were deported which sullied their reputation in the eyes of native born Americans.  As mentioned in the reading, “illegal” was equated with “Mexican”, and still today to a certain extent. Finally, in 1930, Mexican was declared to be a separate race. This did not improve the social standings of Mexican Americans in the United states, but rather enforced the distance between white Americans and Mexican Americans. As a whole, racialization played an important role within the classification of certain immigrant groups and their specific quotas within the United States. Mexican and Japanese immigrants were specifically targeted in regard to racial formation in a way that permanently damaged their persona within American Society, even after being forced to endure unjust treatment by Americans for decades. Upon receiving legal permission to be in the United states, these groups were consequently labeled and discounted.  

2 thoughts on ““The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law” Reading: Caleigh Deane

  1. Caleigh…. I have no words. Your blog post pretty much hit this week’s discussion topic directly on its head. Both your understanding of the event itself (the Immigration Act of 1924) and of Ngai’s analysis of it were spot-on. You were also right to have brought up Native and Mexican Americans into your blog post as much as you did. I remember reading about the court case of Ricardo Rodriguez in the article but not really thinking much of it. Now, I see how much richer of a picture it paints in the context of racial and national classifications during this time. Keep up the great work!

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