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When the states were in charge of immigration
Long enshrined as a federal prerogative, immigration control in the United States has recently been marked by jurisdictional struggles between state and national authorities. Last June’s Supreme Court decision to strike down parts of a restrictive Arizona statute is one high-profile example. During the first hundred years, however, state governments were largely in control of U.S. immigration.
Only in 1882, with the passage of the landmark Immigration Act, did Congress lay claim to a general, peacetime interest in overseeing entry into the country. And even then, the U.S. Treasury, short on manpower and infrastructure, paid state officials to enforce the federal law and quietly allowed states to keep in place their own, tougher policies. From 1882 until 1891, when a new Immigration Act provided for the federal government’s complete control, supervising immigration was a joint project of U.S. and state authorities.
So writes Hidetaka Hirota, Ph.D. ’12, in his dissertation-based essay, “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy,” which won the 2012 Louis Pelzer Memorial Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best essay in American history by a graduate student. Hirota, a Japanese citizen with a B.A. from Jesuit-sponsored Sophia University, in Tokyo, will be staying on as a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College this fall; a longer version of his essay will appear in a future issue of the Journal of American History.
According to Hirota, U.S. histories often overlook the extent to which the Atlantic seaboard states—New York and Massachusetts, in particular—laid the groundwork for national immigration legislation. Since the colonial era, both states had required inbound shipmasters to pay “head money” for any passenger who posed a risk of washing up in a publicly supported almshouse. Of particular concern were “lunatic, idiot, maimed, aged, or infirm” passengers, according to an 1837 Massachusetts law that called for a thousand-dollar bond for any questionable individual. In 1847, New York created a statewide immigration control board; Massachusetts followed four years later with its own agency to address “alien passengers and foreign paupers.”
It was contention over “head money” that delivered the first blows to state immigration systems, according to Hirota. Shippers argued against the practice, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that only Congress had the power to impose such charges and thus regulate foreign commerce. States responded by pushing successfully for what became the 1882 law, which was modeled on their statutes.
Hirota chronicles the extent to which British authorities tested the U.S. immigration system—emptying Irish poorhouses and, between 1883 and 1884 alone, giving 23,536 of their wards tickets to America, with what they hoped was sufficient pocket change to slip through the enforcement nets. As Hirota writes, New York and Massachusetts not only barred such so-called undesirables from entry. They also deported immigrants who became public charges while living in this country (including some who had become U.S. citizens), which exceeded the 1882 law. The federal law had provisions for returning criminal immigrants to their country of origin; indigents, however, could only be excluded at the gates, “not deported,” Hirota says. Massachusetts had been deporting “alien paupers [from its] almshouses and lunatics hospitals” throughout the 19th century, expelling 8,000 people to Ireland, England, and Canada, as well as to other American states, between 1876 and 1878, for example.
The state-federal partnership dissolved with the 1891 Immigration Act, which completely federalized immigration. In that law, among other provisions, Congress chose to adopt the states’ view that indigent immigrants should be deportable. In so doing, and for a time, Washington brought federal immigration law into close alignment with practices honed by the states.
Read more by William Bole