Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009



A History of US Deportation: Will to Exclude, License to Marginalize

Deportation isn’t just the exercise of a right to control borders. It’s also a license the society’s dominant power grants itself to discriminate, to reject and to denigrate minorities. The history of the USA’s evolution as a nation reveals shameful episodes of an ingrained will to exclude. Could that some day be transformed into a will to welcome and share?

José Luis Rocha

When the first European colonists reached what is now the United States of America, Ellis Island was just a 3.3-acre island at the mouth of the Hudson River. After its area was extended with landfill, originally from the excavation of tunnels for the New York subway system, the island grew to its current size of 27.5 acres.

Even after its expansion, Ellis island was no bigger than the small farms of Carazo in Nicaragua, San Vicente in El Salvador or Copán in Honduras. But its historical dimension, particularly its mythical one, has made Ellis Island a landmark of national evolution and the most visible—and profitable—symbol of a self-proclaimed melting pot of immigrants.

The Mohican Indians who lived on Ellis Island called it Kioshk (Seagull Island). The Dutch changed the name to Oyster Island, but the British returned to the Mohican idea, calling it Gull Island, a name it kept until 1770 when it was bought by Samuel Ellis, whose name it still bears. The migrants that passed through the island when it was turned into the main port of entrance to the United States gave it a name in dozens of languages that encapsulated a plethora of meanings: The Island of Tears.

“The Island of Tears” as
an immigration museum

Ellis Island was the threshold of the American dream for 32 years, up until 1924, during which time it received—or expelled—some 12 million passengers at a rate of 5,000 to 10,000 a day. These people were examined legally and medically to discover whether they were carrying highly infectious diseases or ideologies. The doctors wrote the initial letter of possible ailments on the shoulders of those under suspicion. Many had left their home countries healthy, but contracted trachoma in the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions of their sea voyage.

The marked individuals were subjected to meticulous examinations, while the healthy were subjected to an interrogation of 29 questions not so different from those currently fired at us by migration forms and officials, the latter as rigid, stereotyped and lacking in imagination as the forms: “What are you called? Where are you from? Why are you coming to the United States? How old are you? How much money do you have? Show it to me. Who paid for your journey? Did you sign a contract in Europe to work here? Do you have any friends here? Do you have family here? Can anyone act as your sponsor? What is your profession? Are you an anarchist?...”

The poem “Ellis Island,” by George Perec, a Frenchman of Polish Jewish origin, expresses the desolation of the island, its quality of no-place, “where harassed officials baptized Americans by the boatload.” During the time it functioned, Ellis Island received 70% of European emigrants. According to Perec, “Ellis Island was to be nothing other than a factory for making Americans, for turning emigrants into immigrants, an American-style factory as quick and efficient as a Chicago pork-butcher’s. At one end of the assembly line, they would put an Irishman, a Ukrainian Jew or an Italian from Apulia, at the other end—after their eyes and pockets had been inspected, and they had been vaccinated and disinfected—there emerged an American.”

Ellis Island was the port, factory, process for reaching the promised land where, for Perec a new life was going to be able to start, but it wasn’t yet America: just an extension of the boat, a scrap of old Europe where nothing was yet acquired, where those that had left still hadn’t arrived, or those that had left everything still hadn’t obtained anything. When the government restricted immigration by applying a quota system, the boats raced off at full speed to get there before the quota of admissible Europeans had been reached.

The island is now a museum of immigration. The propaganda harps on about how 100 million Americans can trace their ancestors among the immigrants who came in through Ellis Island, including the gangster Lucky Luciano, scientist and writer Isaac Asimov and cosmetics icon Max Factor. Little is mentioned about the 250,000 people who were rejected, while the 3,000 who took their own life on the Island of Tears after being turned away are mentioned only obliquely. This ambivalence gives some idea of the force of the myth.

Ellis Island as myth, model and filter

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong argues that mythology and science extend the reach of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology isn’t about fleeing from this world, but rather how to live more intensely in it. Myths aren’t stories told for one’s delight; they are told to show how we should behave. They help people find their place in the world and their true orientation. All mythology talks of another plane that exists alongside our world and that in a certain sense underpins it. According to a perennial philosophy, everything that happens in this world, everything we can hear and see here below, has its counterpart in the divine kingdom, which is richer, stronger and more enduring than ours. Ellis Island is a secular myth: the higher order is the history and the constitution of that great nation, the United States, mythicized as the perfect democracy and the world superpower.

Myths seek to disseminate a position regarding reality through which they want to shape behavior. Ellis Island proposes a model to follow: the rigorous selection of those who can be admitted. It’s a myth that reinforces the US ideal of being a nation that wants nothing to do with losers, because it’s a nation of best practices employed by the best people. Those who live there are the descendents of people who benefited from an artificial selection process that imitates and accelerates natural selection. Only the most physically, intellectually and morally apt got in.

Armstrong also argues that we all want to know where we came from, because as our earliest beginnings are lost in prehistory, we have created myths about our ancestors that, while not historical, help explain current attitudes about our environment, neighbors and customs. One paradigmatic example of this yearning is Ellis Island, which was a filter, a guarantee that only the best entered after a rapid but meticulous physical and mental selection process… which the undocumented of today are evading. Ellis Island helps explain why people were selected, rejected and deported.

Some enter through the myth door
and others through the back door

The Ellis Island constructed by propaganda doesn’t tell the real story. In reality, as Perec points out in the introduction to his poem, not all emigrants were obliged to pass through Ellis Island. Those with enough money to travel in first or second class were quickly inspected on board by a doctor and an official and disembarked with no problems. The federal government calculated that these emigrants would have enough to cover their needs and wouldn’t be a burden on the state. Those who had to pass through Ellis Island were the ones who traveled third class: in steerage, in the hold, below the water line, in big dormitories with no windows and little ventilation or light, with 2,000 passengers stacked up in bunk beds.

This myth-in-construction of Ellis Island has its own web site (www.ellisisland.org), where the stories most innocuous to the US ideal of a “nation of immigrants” are posted. There are stories of Norwegians, English, Scottish, Swedish, Italians, Russians, Germans, Yugoslavians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Finns, Irish, Poles, Danish, Pakistanis, Koreans, French, Czechs, Spanish, Turks, Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans, Belgians, Greeks… There are only two stories of Central Americans: Yemine González and Evelyn Beltrán, both from El Salvador. Yemine describes her mother’s arrival very simply: “My mom had to come to the United States to help her family after 12 years of war. My mom came from El Salvador.”

Evelyn wrote about the 1981 arrival of her father and mother: “My parents came from El Salvador on a plane directly to California. Then they moved to New Jersey and settled there. Later on they would also bring their children to the United States for a better life. All their children went to college and obtained a degree.”

Evelyn’s story is not at all representative of most Salvadorans, who entered the United States by land, as wetbacks with no documents, and ended up packing chickens, picking strawberries or serving hamburgers. The stories on the website may be self-selected, but that doesn’t make the selection any less functional to the myth: immigrants who enter as wetbacks and end up packing chickens know it isn’t the place to tell their story, which leaves the field open for those who arrive by plane and go to college.

Many people are still entering the “nation of immigrants” by the back door, through windows, cracks in the walls and the attic. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security registered 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States. Between 2000 and 2008, the unauthorized immigrant population increased 37%. They evaded selection and the country pays them back by denying them their rights. Isn’t that about it?

The Ellis Island website has a series of tests for users to gauge whether they have the knowledge required for legal residence in the United States. One test asks: “Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights?” The correct answer is “Everyone (citizens and non-citizens) living in the US.” It’s revealing that just 24% of the people who responded answered correctly. Most replied that it was only citizens. Was their response guided by experience? The test doesn’t break down “non-citizens” into their multiple segments: residents and non-residents, wealthy and poor, documented and undocumented, Europeans and Latin Americans, whites and colored, English speakers and Spanish speakers, etc., which in turn can be bifurcated and trifurcated ad infinitum.

Is the USA a nation of immigrants
or a “deportation nation”?

Throughout its history the United States has received heavy waves of immigrants, whose ethnic, religious and economic diversity always generated tensions that tested the ideal nation set out in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One very important version of US history is the history of how those rights have been violated, redefining who is and who isn’t a citizen and granting or denying rights according to different levels of citizenship. The rejection and deportation of certain individuals or groups have been the extreme measures involved in the sequestering of unalienable rights because such behavior has sent people persecuted in their own countries to a certain death—if they didn’t die trying to get past the dangers of the migratory patrols. Such behavior has also denied them the freedom to choose where they want to live and truncated their pursuit of happiness identified with the American dream.

Deportation is the total denial of those and other rights. The authority of US state power to define as undesirable, capture and expel certain people or categories of people has doctrinal and historical roots that reveal a deportation nation beneath the supposed nation of immigrants. And the two nations are the same age.

Deportation has been the eternal companion of the nation of immigrants, as Daniel Kanstroom states in his book Deportation Nation, written to demolish the myth of the USA as a nation of immigrants. Kanstroom, who is Director of the Boston College Law School’s International Human Rights Program, argues that the current deportation policy is doctrinally based on the concepts of sovereignty coined in the 19th century and is the living legacy of historical episodes marked by ideas about race, imperialism and government power. Deportation implies much more than border control, it is also the point on which majority power bases its attacks on the marginalized segments of society.

Population control of the poor,
dissidents and criminals

Where does this will to expel come from? From which vitriolic spring does it feed? The doctrinal roots of the current deportation system can be traced back to the various mechanisms, policies and arguments of exclusion, confiscation and deportation applied to different ethnic groups in the United States. Deportations—in the form of controls, removals and displacements—kicked off with the expulsion of the Amerindian indigenous peoples, or even before, in the policies employed by the British. They started off with distinctions that distributed rights with unequal generosity. In colonial times, only the British were citizens with full rights. The status of non-British immigrants was very complicated. The legal concept of “denizens” was created for them, as an intermediary state between a foreigner and a native, taking characteristics from both. These people were the most probable “deportation fodder.”

The first ideas of deportation in America were based on previous British examples of forced displacement in response to overpopulation, the forced movement of the poor and workers, control of political dissidents and punishment of criminals. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote of the need to relieve pressure on England and pass the weight of the poor on to others. Following that policy, 200 poor children were removed from the streets of London in 1618 and sent to the colonies as apprentices.

It is in the New World that we find the crudest application of the will to exercise the population and selection controls that are at the root of the notion of deportation. In 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered that no person or town should receive foreigners attempting to reside in its jurisdiction without having first obtained official permission. In the first New England towns no foreigner was accepted as a resident without the town voting on it. Such consent was indispensible for selling, renting land or providing housing to foreigners. New Plymouth in 1658, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 1700, New Hampshire in 1718, New York in 1721 and New Jersey in 1730 all issued ordinances to contain the entry of different types of “undesirables” who might be a burden on the colonies. New Jersey blocked the entry of old people, the mutilated, lunatics and vagabonds. These regulations laid the foundations for control and exclusion beyond the borders.

The acceptable range of religion,
wealth, health and morality

Deportations were still not applied at the time as a routine “social cleansing” mechanism. The insatiable need for labor, the abundance of land, the high cost of crossing the Atlantic and fear of slave revolts and Indian attacks restricted the possibility of organizing the deportation of European colonists. However, there were deportation cases and laws that gradually laid the foundations of the legitimacy and social acceptance of exclusion and forced repatriation. The motive for some of these was the person’s political and religious creed. In 1643 a Virginia law ordered the deportation of Catholic priests five days after their arrival. In 1717, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Council, concerned about “great numbers of foreigners from Germany, strangers to our language and constitution,” ordered the immigrants to swear their loyalty upon arrival. In 1743, an act was approved in Connecticut “dedicated” to Moravian immigrants to provide relief against the “Evil & Dangerous designs of foreigners & Suspected persons.” These crimes were penalized with deportation.

Taken as a whole, these laws provided a range of acceptable characteristics regarding religion, wealth, health and morality. Sometimes just one characteristic was enough to merit deportation, even if another made the person or group acceptable. For example, at the end of the 17th century, when the Huguenots were being considered, being French weighed more heavily than being a Protestant, resulting in them being sent back.

“Alien enemies”

In 1787, Benjamin Franklin proposed gradual deportations in the context of the trade blockade against England. Recalling how the motherland, in a show of maternal tenderness, had “emptied its jails” to improve the population of the colonies, he suggested that these criminals had thrived and reproduced so well they could pay England back in kind, using the ships lying idle due to English restrictions on American trade to ship criminals back to England.

Franklin seriously proposed a deportation system that would oblige each English merchant ship to take at least one criminal for each 50 tons of cargo. However, no national deportation policy was applied until 11 years later, in the form of An Act Respecting Alien Enemies (1798), also known as the Alien Enemies Act. One of four acts known as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed that year, this targeted French foreigners and established that “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies.” This act still forms part of the US body of laws.

Not content with this timorous law, some Federalist senators went as far as to call for unlimited and discretional power for a President to deport any foreigner for any reason. Their opinion prevailed and led to what was officially called An Act Concerning Aliens, better known as the Alien Friends Act, which granted the President the power to deport any foreigner judged too dangerous for the peace and security of the USA. To top it all, the law gave the President the power to expel from the country anyone reasonably suspected of being involved in secret machinations against the government.

This act also left its mark in the form of the violation of alien rights, as they were denied the right to a jury; the creation of a centralized registry system for all foreigners; the impossibility of remaining in the country without obtaining a special permit; and the application of criminal charges to all returning deportees. Many Federalists did not deny the act’s roughness, but simply sustained that foreigners were not part of “We the people” and therefore lacked the constitutional guarantees to remain.

The “removal” and
elimination of Native Americans

US historian Howard Zinn observed that “if women, of all the subordinate groups in a society dominated by rich white males, were closest to home (indeed, in the home), the most interior, then the Indians were the most foreign, the most exterior.” These exterior ones were increasingly sent further into the exterior, to un-colonized lands, and ended up being confined in reservations when there was no longer any land to colonize. The scorn shown to Native Americans was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “[The King] has excited domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

That contemptuous and defamatory vision and propaganda had started before independence. The absence of mixed marriages after a century of colonization reflects the attitude of the British conquerors towards the ethnic groups and cultures they subjected. This limited erotic proximity was complemented by a hostile proximity. Zinn reminds us that 20 years before independence, a Massachusetts parliamentary proclamation of November 3, 1755, offered a reward of 40 pounds per male Indian scalp and 20 for the scalp of each Indian who was female or under the age of 12. The following year the Pennsylvania Council and Deputy Governor Robert H. Morris openly declared war and offered $130 for the scalp of each male Indian over the age of 12 and $50 for the scalp of an Indian woman.

Deportation was born of scorn and greed. The “Indian Removal” cleared the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi for the use of whites, in order to sow cotton in the south and grain in the north and to expand white Anglo-Saxon dominion from coast to coast.

Most Native Americans fought on the British side during the War of Independence. They knew what was coming. Jefferson became President in 1800 and immediately promoted the removal of Creek and Cherokee Indians from Georgia, which was very convenient because gold would soon be discovered in that state. When the purchase of Louisiana from the French doubled the size of the United States, Jefferson proposed to Congress that the Indians be “encouraged” to establish themselves in smaller territories and dedicate themselves to agriculture. Jefferson said he was promoting agriculture, industry and civilization. In fact, he was acting as a factor in the expansion of capitalism, to the satisfaction and delight of the landowners. The lands of “removed” Indians were acquired by rich speculators, including George Washington.

President Jackson, Indian exteminator

According to Zinn, “John Donelson, a state surveyor, ended up with 20,000 acres of land near what is now Chattanooga. His son-in-law made twenty-two trips out of Nashville in 1795 for land deals. This was Andrew Jackson..., a land speculator, merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history.”

Jackson became a national hero when he massacred 800 Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and took half of the Creek nation’s territory away. He subsequently played a key role in the treaties between Indians and whites in the south between 1814 and 1824, based on bribes and deceit that allowed the whites to take possession of three quarters of Alabama and Florida, a third of Tennessee, a fifth of Georgia and Mississippi, and large parts of Kentucky and North Carolina. The reign of cotton and the black slave plantations were then installed in the territories taken from the indigenous peoples.

In 1818 Jackson promoted the war against the Seminoles, which culminated in the acquisition of Florida and Jackson’s enthronement as governor of the new state. Zinn laments that US school history textbooks portray Jackson as a frontiersman, democrat and man of the people, but never as a slave trader, real estate speculator, executor of dissident soldiers and exterminator of indigenous people. Once elected President of the United States in 1828, he was able to develop his geophagy and frenzy for Indian removal on a large scale. In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, convinced that separating the Indians would allow them to seek happiness in their own way, following their own rudimentary institutions.

His cynicism knew no bounds when he told a US Army major sent to talk to the Choctaws and Cherokees to “say to the chiefs and warriors that I am their friend, that I wish to act as their friend but they must, by removing from the limits of the States of Mississippi and Alabama and by being settled on the lands I offer them, put it in my power to be such. There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.”

In 1840, over 70,000 Native Americans were forced to march west of the Mississippi in what is known as the “Trail of Tears.” There were 645 wagons and people walking beside them. Many died of hunger, sickness and exhaustion. Four thousand Cherokees died during the exodus and their confinement in a stockade. The north was no more benign. The deportation of Iroquois from their own lands meant that in 1972 only 78,000 of the 18 million acres they originally possessed in New York remained in their hands.

In Democracy in America (1835) Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated his doctrinal support for this policy: “Providence, when it placed them amid the riches of the New World, seems to have granted them a short lease only; they were there in some sense, only waiting.” Before the arrival of the white man, “those coasts so well suited for trade and industry, those deep rivers, that inexhaustible valley of the Mississippi—in short, the whole continent—seemed the yet empty cradle of a great nation.” More than a century later, French author André Maurois reiterated the same thesis when he mused that wretched Europeans saw America as the Promised Land partly because this land seemingly belonged to nobody. The pillaging carried out by the recent arrivals was justified by their predestination and the lack of rights pertaining to the “savage” natives.

A new threat from Afro-Americans
and the Act of 1803

The Indians had still not been entirely controlled when another “threat,” this time represented by Afro-descended people, started to raise concern and generate control measures. In 1803 an act was passed as a reaction to their mass entry from Guadalupe; it was the first federal immigration legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts, this time aimed at blocking the entry of “any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, not being a native, a citizen, or registered seaman of the United States, or seamen natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope, into any port or place of the United States, which port or place shall be situated in any state which by law has prohibited or shall prohibit the admission or importation of such negro, mulatto, or other person of colour…”

In North Carolina, all free Afro-Americans in the cities were instructed to register and wear a rosette on their shoulder bearing the word “free.” The parallel between this and the subsequent treatment of Jews and other groups in Nazi Germany is striking. In both cases it was a control mechanism for national blemishes that might become dangerous. In both cases people in a certain sector of the population were being reduced to or maintained as second-class citizens with certain obligations and rights that didn’t apply to full citizens. And in both cases this corresponded to a “fear of small numbers.”

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

This tendency continued with unabated consistency and penetration, resulting in 1850 in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which established the forced displacement of people based on their legal status and race. This piece of legislation contains the roots of conceptions that underpin the current migratory legislation. The act established the power to remove fugitive slaves from service and labor in “free states” and relocate them in the state or territory from which they had escaped. Nowadays it is Colombians, Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Central Americans being returned to territories from which they escaped to avoid violent death or miserable wages.

Sheriffs who failed to take all necessary measures to diligently enforce this act were fined $1,000. If the slave managed to escape from a sheriff’s custody, the sheriff could be sued by the plaintiff for the full value of the slave’s service or labor in the territory from which he or she had escaped. Anyone providing help or refuge to a fugitive slave was punished with six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

The testimony of someone claiming to be the owner of a fugitive slave was enough to warrant the presumed slave’s arrest by the sheriff, with no right to trial or to testify in his or her own defense. The fact that no Afro-American suspected of being a slave had any rights or was accepted as a witness in any trial closed off many possible lines of defense, increasing the number of free Afro-Americans taken into slavery, as they couldn’t defend themselves against the accusations. This act was applied to human beings considered property in states where owning people was a legitimate right; it recognized only the minimum constitutional rights of the accused because it was applied to individuals believed to lack citizens’ rights. Today, even the minimum rights of undocumented immigrants are frequently not recognized.

Like today, some reacted against this act and its inhuman application. Literature played its part here. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set in the context of the Fugitive Slave Act and is said to have contributed to the abolition of slavery. Christian churches also attacked the act. In 1855, Reverend Luther Lee, pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, New York, wrote that “I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted anything of me, my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning.”

The basis of current
deportation laws

The Fugitive Slave Act was not the first of its kind, but it laid the foundations for future deportation laws by getting the US legal system to accept—on a large scale for the first time in its history—a relatively efficient federal system to forcibly relocate people based on insignificant evidence, with minimal or non-existent judicial supervision and only the most basic judicial protection.

Conservative newspapers of the time even proposed clearing the land of Afro-Americans. Nowadays, many senators and journalists unabashedly back deportation. Like new fugitive slaves, immigrants are confined to the territory where they were born. They are forced to return to places where they have no jobs or social security and where they may also be persecuted. The captured slaves faced forced removal from communities where they had settled and may have had family, work and other kinds of roots to places where they received the most inhuman treatment. Deportation causes family disintegration among today’s immigrants and authorities turn a deaf ear to arguments that they have family, jobs and socio-cultural links in the countries where they ended up.

The fugitive slave legislation affected all Afro-descendents, both free and enslaved. Even freed slaves feared being kidnapped and sold as fugitives. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Afro-Americans fled the United States within months of the law being passed in 1850. During the Civil War, the situation deteriorated even in slave-free states, where the affluence of Afro-Americans alarmed certain sectors.

An editorial in the Daily National Intelligencer went so far as to state that “the ‘African’ is a ‘brother,’ but South Carolina, not Massachusetts, is left to be the ‘brother’s’ keeper.” Others advocated re-exporting them. It was widely believed that southern slave states would be less opposed to the abolition of slavery if the former slaves were transferred to other regions, because their great fear was how to govern free Afro-Americans.

Abraham Lincoln and the idea of
sending blacks to Central America

Many plans for the removal of Afro-Americans circulated in the 18th century, including confining them to specific areas of the United States, removing them from the country altogether and applying such harsh laws that they would voluntarily leave. In 1816 the American Colonization Society was founded to use state government funds to promote the deportation of Afro-Americans to Africa. Prominent members included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

The Anti-Slave Trade Act of 1819 provided US$100,000 to transfer Afro-Americans to Africa. Fearing that the returned Afro-Americans would be newly enslaved by traffickers, President James Monroe acquired land on the west coast of Africa, which became Liberia in 1848. Haiti was another destination. Lincoln proposed Central America and sent an envoy to explore conditions in Chiriquí, Panama.

Maryland went to the extreme of creating a Board of Managers for the Removal of Colored People, which was basically a state deportation agency; it was imitated by other states. Virginia earmarked US$30,000 a year to deportation, a good part of which was raised by taxing the free Afro-Americans. The Dred Scott ruling of 1857 confirmed Afro-Americans’ lack of citizenry and reinforced the wave of deportations. In 1860, Arkansas instructed all free Afro-Americans to leave the state or be sold as slaves.

The most revealing statement was made by Reverend James Mitchell in a letter to Lincoln in 1862, arguing that the black population should be deported because “our republican system was meant for a homogeneous people. As long as blacks continue to live with the whites they constitute a threat to the national life. Family life may also collapse and the increase of mixed breed bastards may some day challenge the supremacy of the white man.” Soon after, Lincoln appointed Mitchell to the recently-created post of Commissioner of Immigration.

Receiving a group of Afro-Americans in 1862, Lincoln insisted that they and he belonged to different races, whose separation was of mutual benefit. Conceding that many of those deported to Liberia had died, Lincoln proposed Central America as a dumping place for this human waste, arguing it had a similar climate to their native lands, which more suited their physical conditions.

Central American panic against
a “dreadful flood of black immigration”

Mitchell got to work and sent a memorandum to Afro-American pastors urging them to use their influence to encourage emigration. “This is a nation of equal white laborers,” he argued, “and as you cannot be accepted on equal terms, there is no place here for you. You cannot go into the North or the West without arousing the growing feeling of hostility toward you. The South must also have a homogeneous population, and any attempt to give the freedmen equal status in the South will bring disaster to both races.” Lincoln and Mitchell were apparently convinced that Afro-Americans could live in Central America among equals and not awaken any hostility.

The governors of the isthmus, however, were not of the same opinion. The consuls of Nicaragua and Honduras reported national panic with respect to the imminence of a “dreadful flood of black immigration.” The project was finally aborted because some senators, probably backed by powerful economic interests, argued that Afro-Americans were an important part of the national economy and their absence would have dire consequences for the country’s prosperity. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan, Honduran and Costa Rican governments, which were redesigning their migratory policies to attract Europeans, issued an official protest. It was the last straw: invasions, contemptuous statements and many other vexations could be tolerated from the gringos, but there was no way we would be blackened so they could whiten themselves… or allow them to consider us a population with which the blacks could feel homogeneity.

A year later, Lincoln started to design a plan to send the whole colored race from the slave states to Texas. He then considered Florida and finally proposed sending 5,000 Afro-descendents to the Haitian island of Ile a Vache, to which 450 deportees were finally sent. A hundred soon died of sickness and starvation. The survivors returned to the United States and this spectacular failure left Lincoln’s deportation strategies in ruins.

Growing hostility toward Chinese

These plans and policies were just the ideological and operational foundations of a federal deportation policy, a legal monstrosity articulated after three steps had been taken: the federalization of immigration control, legitimization of the federal deportation laws, and the extension of border control laws toward legislation for social control through deportations applied to those who had already entered. The analogy between border control and post-entry control is a key piece in the deportation mechanism.

Immigration was encouraged during the 1860s and 1870s. The Civil War and emancipation created a growing demand for labor. Big capital also needed strikebreakers and abundant labor to neutralize the unions. Chinese started arriving in California shortly afterwards, during the gold fever. Between 1849 and 1852 their numbers increased from 325 to over 20,000. Mark Twain calculated that just over a decade later there were perhaps 100,000 Chinese on the Pacific coast. Other sources estimate an increase from 7,500 to 105,000 between 1850 and 1880. In 1870, 25% of the Californian workforce was from China, according to a report titled “Indispensable Enemy.” At first they were welcomed, but their accelerated increase soon stirred up hostility.

Twain denounced the sale of Chinese slaves between the ages of 14 and 20 for $150-$400. The girls were abducted and sold in the brothels of San Francisco, while legislators passed laws against prostitution, claiming that Chinese women had a propensity for this profession. Representative Higby of California solemnly announced that “virtue is an exception to the general rule” among Chinese women and that Chinese men sold their women like cattle, concluding that “you cannot make citizens of them.” In 1874, the California legislature passed an immigration law requiring steamships to post a $500 bond for the landing of certain undesirables, including any “lewd or debauched woman.” This campaign was successful: only 136 of the 39,579 Chinese who arrived in the United States between 1876 and 1882 were women. Due to the virtual inexistence of inter-racial marriages, this policy worked as a racial population control measure, but it was not enough for the anti-Chinese groups. They pressured until they got the California Constitutional Convention of 1878 to prohibit Chinese, idiots, mad people and people accused of vile crimes from ever voting in any elections. The Convention also prohibited Chinese and Mongolians from public employment, unless it was punishment for some crime.

The Chinese became indispensable enemies that allowed the Irish immigrants to shake off the xenophobic hostility aimed at them and redirect it towards a “non-white” group. Racial qualities previously attributed to blacks soon became characteristic of the Chinese. That’s where Mark Twain’s defense was coming from when he stressed the Chinese talent for industriousness: “They will raise surprising crops of vegetables on a sand-pile. They waste nothing. What is rubbish to a Christian, a Chinaman carefully preserves and makes useful in one way or another. He gathers up all the old oyster and sardine cans that white people throw away, and procures marketable tin and solder from them by melting. He gathers up old bones and turns them into manure.” Twain also emphasized that “all Chinamen can read, write, and cipher with easy facility—pity but all our petted voters could,” and that most earned a living washing clothes, charging $2.50 for a dozen items.

“The land of the free”
depends who’s testifying...

The Chinese were subjected to discriminatory taxes and their ownership of businesses, choice of schools and right to testify in court were restricted. They could be accused by whites in any court, but no Chinese person could testify against a white. Twain draws the following conclusion: “Ours is the ‘land of the free’—nobody denies that—nobody challenges it. [Maybe it is because we won’t let other people testify.]”

The chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, Hugh Murray, cleared the murderer of a Chinese man when he rejected the evidence given by other Chinese, basing his verdict on the fact that the Chinese are a race “whose mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown…” The west was plagued with such attitudes. Testifying before a Congressional hearing, Judge Hastings of San Francisco remarked: “My opinion is, and I speak from the highest authority, that the Chinese are almost another species…they vary from the Aryan or European race… I think they vary so much that the offspring of the Chinaman, united with the American race, would be unfertile, or would be imperfectly fertile, if not mules.”

The signing of the Burlingame Treaty between China and the United States in 1868 appeared to mark a change of direction. This treaty reformed the Tientsin Treaty and established formal friendly relations between the two countries. The United States conceded preferential treatment to China and gave it the right to establish consulates in US ports that would enjoy the same privileges and immunities as those of Great Britain and Russia. It also encouraged the migration of Chinese to the United States and granted freedom of religious faith, worship and conscience to Chinese citizens in the USA and to US citizens in China. The two countries also granted certain privileges to citizens residing in the other country.

“I have seen Chinamen… maltreated
in all the mean, cowardly ways”

Mark Twain celebrated the signing of the treaty. In the New York Tribune he described the cruel treatment meted out to the Chinese by many Americans, saying they would no longer be able to hit, beat or set dogs on Chinamen, that such pastimes had gone forever. “In San Francisco,” he commented, “a large part of the most interesting local news in the daily papers consists of gorgeous compliments to the ‘able and efficient’ Officer This and That for arresting Ah Foo, or Ching Wang, or Song Hi for stealing a chicken; but when some white brute breaks an unoffending Chinaman’s head with a brick, the paper does not compliment any officer for arresting the assaulter, for the simple reason that the officer does not make the arrest; the shedding of Chinese blood only makes him laugh; he considers it fun of the most entertaining description. I have seen dogs almost tear helpless Chinamen to pieces in broad daylight in San Francisco, and I have seen hod-carriers who help to make Presidents stand around and enjoy the sport.”

He said he had seen mobs of kids stone a Chinaman who was minding his own business and going about his business, and send him home again bleeding and bruised. “I have seen Chinamen abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature,” Twain continued, “but I never saw a Chinaman righted in a court of justice for wrongs thus done to him. The California laws do not allow Chinamen to testify against white men.”

Until the mid-19th century, each state had its own legal and police system of exclusion that protected its population from undesired immigrants, such as the poor, the sick, criminals and different kinds of “immoral” people. The application of these laws had an ethnic bias that was later transmitted to the federal legislation. One federal act of 1878—the Fifteen Passenger Act—limited to 15 the number of Chinese passengers a ship could transport to the United States. Explaining the motivation behind the act, Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field told a journalist, “We are alarmed upon this coast at the incursion of the Chinese…. It is to us a question of property, civilization, and existence.” The Court played a leading role in federalizing migratory policies. Amid various controversies, it ruled that only Congress, not the states of the Union, could regulate who could and couldn’t enter the country, arguing that leaving this decision to the states could lead to disastrous quarrels with other nations.

Racial hatred against the Chinese
inspired the current deporting legislation

The first comprehensive Federal Immigration Act of 1882 was approved to avoid any more friction. The law ordered the exclusion and return to their countries of a variety of undesirables, including convicts, idiots, lunatics and persons likely to become a public burden. It was applied by state officials operating under the federal authority whose pay was covered by a federal tax. Americans had to pay the equivalent of 50 cents a head to sustain the new bureaucracy in charge of deportations. Considering that in 1880 the USA had a population of 50,189,209 inhabitants, the tax must have generated the considerable sum of $25,094,605 a year, which was a tremendous fortune with which to free the country from undesirables.

Racial hatred against the Chinese finally gelled in the modern legislation on immigration and deportation. In 1882, Congress repealed the Burlingame Treaty and passed an act prohibiting the entry of Chinese workers for 10 years. Six years later, it proposed to China a treaty to extend the prohibition to the following 20 years. Given the Chinese government’s reluctance to ratify the treaty, it approved the Scott Act, which prohibited entry to all Chinese workers, froze the issuing of return certificates to those who wanted to visit relatives in China and cancelled any still valid certificates.

Over 20,000 Chinese were directly affected because they weren’t allowed to return. Over 600 certificate holders were on the high seas when the act was approved. Chae Chan Ping was one of them and decided to defend his cause at all costs. His case—Chae Chan Ping vs. United States, also known as the Chinese exclusion case—was presented to the Supreme Court in 1889.

Chae Chan Ping lived and worked in San Francisco for 12 years and then left to visit his family. To do so, he obtained one of the certificates of return that the Scott Act declared void. The Court rejected defense arguments of the existence of a contract, rights conferred, constitutional protection and limits of government power. Instead, it defined the principle of sovereignty as an unconditional plenary power. And so the power to regulate immigration was established as extra-constitutional, full and inherent to sovereignty. This implied that immigration legislation, unlike other government actions, which must be justified by referring to constitutional authority and must comply with constitutional standards, would receive minimum judicial review, or none at all.

“A threat to our civilization”

Supporters of this legal turn justified the exclusion by arguing that it put a check on a group that constituted a threat to their civilization. The new legislation established that the power to exclude foreigners was a matter of national sovereignty that the United States can exercise at any moment at which the country’s interests are at stake, in the government’s judgment, and that the government’s political department had the competency to act on its own in this respect. This legal argument became the doctrinal underpinning of current jurisprudence relating to deportation.

Chinese people already resident in the United States were the next to come under attack. In 1892, the Geary Act required them to demonstrate the legality of their residency through the testimony of at least one credible white witness. It wasn’t easy to find “credible” white witnesses willing to testify on behalf of a Chinese person, and given that tens of thousands of Chinese workers then had to be deported and put on a ship at the US government’s expense, the Treasury Secretary found himself with a budget of just $25,000 for a task costing over $7 million.

It was impossible to apply the Geary Act, but its discussion in the Senate established an important doctrinal link: the power to expel was inferred from the plenipotentiary power to exclude. The Supreme Court also determined that deportation orders were not punishment for a crime, but rather a method to force the return to their country of origin of foreigners who hadn’t complied with the conditions for continuing to reside in the United States.

US citizenship and the
case of Emma Goldman

What was behind all these proposals? The modern 19th-century deportation regime was based on what has been called “citizenship with membership.” In other words, all citizens are full members of the US constitutional community, while non-citizens are in another category. The modern deportation doctrine is essentially contractual: whoever enters the United States accepts certain conditions, and if the contract is broken then the government and individual must return to the status quo ante.

The problem is that this system, which is applied to non-citizens, provides a model that can be applied to citizens as well, as happened in the famous case of US citizen Emma Goldman, who was stripped of her citizenship in order to be deported.

Goldman (1869-1940) was a famous anarchist of Lithuanian origin who pioneered the fight for women’s emancipation. She emigrated to the United States at the age of 16 and became a textile worker. She was arrested countless times for her anarchist activities and always had a good book with her to read in prison as she was arrested each time she attended a conference.

She was imprisoned in 1916 for distributing a manifesto in favor of contraception, in 1917 for opposing military service and in 1919 to be stripped of her citizenship and deported to Russia. John Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI and its director for 48 years (1924-1972), called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.”

Following 9-11, the US government applied the same sentence to many suspects, canceling their citizenship and deporting them. Once stripped of their citizenship, immigrants and their children became completely vulnerable to US legislation and authorities.

The Ku Klux Klan’s cleansing and purifying

Like other purification processes studied by British anthropologist Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger, deportation serves to cleanse US society of people with certain qualities and mitigate the anxiety their presence produces. Deportation has been only one of the cleansing methods that have saturated US history.

André Maurois reminds us of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization at the same time sinister and comical which for Maurois was the most spectacular attempt to administer justice privately… and unjustly. Maurois tells how the Klan, founded in Georgia by one Colonel Simmons, attracted weak spirits through its fledgling apparatus. Members wore long white tunics and hoods during its punitive expeditions. In the name of “Americanism” the Klan fought against blacks, Jews, Catholics and the liberals who protected these minorities. Its dignitaries received the name of Kleagles or Goblins. Simmons was the Imperial Wizard. The Klan grew rapidly until it had four and a half million members and exercised real political power in the South, the Midwest and the Pacific coast. Theoretically, it should have united the representatives of “pure Americanism,” but in reality, particularly in the South, its aim was to terrorize black people.

The preservation of “pure Americanism,” whether racial or ideological, continues to justify the exclusion and deportation of the impure. The Ku Klux Klan served as inspiration for other purifiers of Americanism. According to Maurois, certain patriotic organizations, such as the National Security League, also set themselves up as the custodians of Americanism. Demanding that educators swear loyalty, censuring history books and treating unfortunates with foreign names as suspects were not the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan, but they were done in the same spirit. For Maurois, the Supreme Court, whose mission it was to ensure all constitutional guarantees, put up a weak showing as soon as “sedition” or “criminal syndicalism” were mentioned.

The generalized attitude among state officials was ominous for the immigrants. Terence Powderly, who was Commissioner General of Immigration for five years (1897-1902), had said just five years earlier that “[the Chinese] do not assimilate with our people, do not wear our clothing, do not adopt our customs, language, religion or sentiments… American and Chinese civilizations are antagonistic; they cannot live and thrive and both survive on the same soil. One or the other must perish.”

The closure of Ellis Island
didn’t end this arrogance

Pretending that US civilization was comparable to Chinese civilization was temerity bordering on the crudest, unpalliated ignorance, symptomatic of imperial arrogance. That spirit encouraged many controversies in which those involved—senators, representatives and judges—made distinctions they later molded through legislation. Some distinguished between the power to exclude and the power to expel. Others distinguished between citizens; “denizens,” who were long-term legal residents; recent arrivals; and visitors. And yet others distinguished between foreign inhabitants and permanent inhabitants, or inhabitants and non-residents, defining the latter as non-legal inhabitants.

Opponents argued that no nation had the right to expel a citizen of another nation without special cause, but that position did not prevail in the policies devised. The pro-exclusion tendencies reaped one success after another. Despite being vetoed by President Wilson, the Literacy Act was passed in 1917, requiring all people hoping to enter the United States to know how to read and write in their language of origin and subject themselves to different IQ tests.

Seven years later, Ellis Island was closed as a port of entry and turned into a training base for coastguards and a detention center for foreign enemies (communists and fascists), following passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act. This law limited the number of admissible immigrants to 150,000 and assigned immigration visa quotas of 2% of the number of people from each country residing in the United States as of the 1890 national census. As if the privilege of Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians and Germans—who had been emigrating to the United States for longer—were not enough, the system excluded Asians from the quotas altogether. Latinos did not yet represent a migratory problem.

The law was approved with just six votes against. Its promoters were inspired by The Passing of the Great Race, published by Madison Grant in 1916 to disseminate his theories on eugenics and racial hygiene. Grant insisted on the superiority of the races from northern Europe that founded the United States. Union leader Samuel Gompers, of Jewish origin, supported the act, ignoring the clamor from many Jews who argued that the quota system was anti-Semitic.

The appearance of this act and the demise of Ellis Island did not bring an end to this story. As Perec pointed out, emigration to the United States had started long before Ellis Island and did not end with its closure. Nor did deportations.

Try to understand so many millions of people
We’ll examine the deportation policies from the 20th century to the present day in our next installment. The question raised by this tragic history is whether this will to exclude and expel will be transformed some day into a will to welcome and share.

Perhaps that will to expel may decline one day, when many Americans do what Perec suggests and try to represent the individual lives of the millions who passed through Ellis Island, the identical and different stories of those men, women and children expelled from their native land by hunger or misery, political, racial or religious oppression, leaving everything, their town, family, friends, taking months and years to gather enough money for the voyage. Finding themselves there, in a hall so large they would never have dared imagine such a big place could exist, grouped in rows of four, waiting their turn, they had renounced their past and their history, abandoned everything to try to live a life there that they hadn’t been granted the right to live in their native country and found themselves faced with the inexorable.

The world has changed so much since those millions of men, women and children filled that hall that an Afro-American is now the President of the United States and China is on the road to being a world superpower. But have those of us inhabiting the world changed so much? Perhaps the beginning of the change, a subjective and current version, lies in understanding that Ellis Island belongs to all of those whom intolerance and misery threw and still throw out of the land in which they grew up.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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