Immigration and immigration policy have been an integral part of the American polity since the early years of the American Republic. Until late in the nineteenth century it had been the aim of American policy, and thus its diplomacy, to facilitate the entrance of free immigrants. From the 1880s until World War II—an era of immigration restriction of increasing severity—the diplomacy of immigration was chiefly concerned with the consequences of keeping some people out and, after 1924, when Congress made the diplomatic establishment partially responsible for immigration selection and its control, with keeping some prospective immigrants out. Since 1945, after only seemingly minor changes in policy during World War II, and partly due to the shift in American foreign policy from quasi-isolation to a quest for global leadership and hegemony, immigration policy has become less and less restrictive. Cold War imperatives plus a growing tendency toward more egalitarian attitudes about ethnic and racial minorities contributed to a change in immigration policy.
Many foreigners clearly understood that there were certain ironies in these long-term changes. No one was more aware of this than the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Visiting Washington in 1979 during a time when the United States was urging the Soviet Union to allow more Jews to emigrate, the Chinese leader, according to Jimmy Carter's memoirs, told the American president: "If you want me to release ten million Chinese to come to the United States I'd be glad to do that." Obviously, Deng was "pulling Carter's chain," but it is not clear from the text whether the Georgian realized that. Immigration was part of the raison d'être of the early Republic. One of the complaints in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was that George III had "endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands." The Constitution, while not mentioning immigration directly, did instruct Congress "to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization" (Article 1, Section 8) and provided that naturalized persons might hold any office under the Constitution save only President and Vice President. (Article 2, Section 1). The only other reference to migration referred obliquely to the African slave trade, providing that "the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight" (Article 1, Section 9).
In 1790 Congress passed the first naturalization act, limiting those eligible to "free white persons." This put the new nation on a collision course with Great Britain, which, although it had naturalization statutes of its own, often refused to recognize the switch of allegiance of its subjects. The question of the impressment of seamen was one of the issues that troubled Anglo-American relations from 1787, when the first of many American protests against impressment was made, until the end of the War of 1812. Foreign Secretary George Canning put the British case nicely when he declared that when British seamen "are employed in the private service of foreigners, they enter into engagements inconsistent with the duty of subjects. In such cases, the species of redress which the practice of all times has … sanctioned is that of taking those subjects at sea out of the service of such foreign individuals." Impressment, of course, became one of the issues that led to the War of 1812. After that the British recognized, in practice, the right of naturalization, but one of the ongoing tasks of American diplomatic officials has been trying to ensure that naturalized American citizens are recognized as such when they visit their former native lands. This has been particularly a problem for men of military age during time of war.
While barring the African slave trade at the earliest possible moment in 1808, immigration "policy" in the new nation universally welcomed free immigrants. American leaders understood that immigration was necessary to fill up their largely empty and expanding country and would have endorsed the nineteenth-century Argentine statesman Juan Bautista Alberdi's maxim that "to govern is to populate." Even Millard Fillmore, while running for president on the nativist American Party ticket in 1856, found it necessary to insist that he had "no hostility to foreigners" and "would open wide the gates and invite the oppressed of every land to our happy country, excluding only the pauper and the criminal." Actually the gates were open, and Fillmore's suggestion of restriction on economic grounds would not become law until 1882. As long as American immigration policy welcomed all free immigrants there were no policy issues for American diplomats to negotiate. Immigration first became a special subject for diplomatic negotiation during the long run-up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
A few Chinese had come to the United States—chiefly to East Coast ports—in the late eighteenth century in connection with the China trade. After American missionaries were established in China, some Chinese, mostly young men, came to the eastern United States for education without raising any stir. But relatively large-scale Chinese immigration, mostly to California beginning with the gold rush of 1849, produced an anti-Chinese movement. Before this movement became a national concern, Secretary of State William H. Seward appointed a former Massachusetts congressman, Anson Burlingame, as minister to China in 1861. He was the first to reside in Beijing. A radical former free-soiler and antislavery orator, Burlingame supported Chinese desires for equal treatment by the Western powers. While still in Beijing, he resigned his post in late 1867 and accepted a commission as China's first official envoy to the West. With an entourage that included two Chinese co-envoys and a large staff, he traveled to Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States seeking modification of China's unequal status. He was successful only in Washington. There he negotiated in 1868 what became known as the Burlingame Treaty—actually articles added to the Treaty of Tientsin (1858). The 1868 agreement, China's first equal treaty, was ratified without controversy and contained the first immigration clause in any American treaty:
The United States and the Emperor of China cordially recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance and also the mutual advantage of free migration and emigration … for the purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents … but nothing contained herein shall be held to confer naturalization upon the citizens of the United States in China, nor upon the subjects of China in the United States.
The United States would never again recognize a universal "right to immigrate," and by 1870 the anti-Chinese movement was becoming national. Spurred by economic distress in California and a few instances of Chinese being used as strikebreakers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, anti-Chinese forces stemming largely from the labor movement made increasingly powerful demands for an end to Chinese immigration, usually blending their economic arguments with naked racism. That summer Congress was legislating the changes in the existing naturalization statute impelled by the end of slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment. Republican Senator Charles Sumner and a few other radicals wanted to make the new naturalization statute color blind, but the majority did not wish to extend that fundamental right to Chinese. The new statute amended the eligibility from "free white persons" to "white persons and to aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent."
In 1876 Congress created a joint congressional committee to investigate Chinese immigration. It took testimony in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco just before and after that year's presidential election. By that time both national party platforms had anti-Chinese planks. The Republican version was somewhat tentative, declaring it "the immediate duty of Congress to investigate the effects of the immigration and importation of Mongolians." The out-of-power Democrats denounced "the policy which tolerates the revival of the coolie-trade in Mongolian women held for immoral purposes, and Mongolian men to perform servile labor." The majority report of the joint congressional committee claimed that the Pacific Coast had to become "either American or Mongolian," insisting that there was "not sufficient brain capacity in the Chinese race to furnish motive power for self-government" and that "there is no Aryan or European race which is not far superior to the Chinese." The committee report urged the president to get the Burlingame Treaty modified and Congress to legislate against "Asiatic immigration." The report was presented to Congress while it was settling the election of 1876, so no immediate action was taken. After much debate the next Congress passed the so-called Fifteen Passenger bill, which barred any vessel from bringing in more than fifteen Chinese immigrants. The sticking point for many was the existing Burlingame Treaty: some wanted to over-ride it completely while others wanted to wait until the treaty was revised. The bill also instructed the president to notify the Chinese that portions of the treaty were abrogated, which passage of the bill would have accomplished.
Rutherford B. Hayes responded with a reasoned veto message that accepted the desirability of stemming Chinese immigration. He argued that the Chinese manifested "all the traits of race, religion, manners, and customs, habitations, mode of life, segregation here, and the keeping up of the ties of their original home … [which] stamp them as strangers and sojourners, and not as incorporated elements of our national life." But, he insisted, there was no emergency to justify unilateral abrogation of the treaty, which could have disastrous consequences for American merchants and missionaries in China. He promised that there would be a renegotiation of the treaty.
A somewhat protracted diplomatic renegotiation was completed by the end of 1880, and the new treaty was ratified and proclaimed in October 1881. It unilaterally gave the United States the right to "regulate, limit, or suspend" the "coming or residence" of Chinese laborers, but it allowed Chinese subjects "proceeding to the United States as teachers, students, merchants, or from curiosity, together with their body and household servants, and Chinese laborers now in the United States to go and come of their own free will and accord."
In the spring of 1882, Congress passed a bill suspending the immigration of Chinese laborers for twenty years. President Chester A. Arthur vetoed it, arguing that while a permanent bar to Chinese labor might be eventually justified, prudence dictated a shorter initial term. Congress responded by repassing the bill but with a ten-year suspension, and Arthur signed it into law in May 1882. The law prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers—defined as "both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining"—after 4 August 1882. It also provided that any Chinese who was in the country on 17 November 1880—the effective date of the Sino-American treaty—or had come between that date and 4 August 1882 had the right to leave and return. The law, as opposed to the treaty, did not spell out who was entitled to enter, although it did specify that diplomats and other officials of the Chinese government doing government business, along with their body and household servants, were admissible. Fines for bringing Chinese in illegally could run as high as $1,000 per individual, and vessels landing Chinese illegally were liable to seizure and condemnation.
Thus, what is commonly called the Chinese Exclusion Act—its proper title is "To Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to Chinese"—became law. The typical textbook treatment is a sentence or two, sometimes relating it to other discriminatory treatment. Its real significance goes much deeper than that. Viewed from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the Exclusion Act is clearly a pivot on which subsequent American immigration policy turned, the hinge on which the poet Emma Lazarus's "Golden Door" began to swing toward a closed position. It initiated what can be called an era of steadily increasing restrictions on immigration of all kinds that would last for sixty-one years. It was also the first time that immigration policy per se became a focal point of a bilateral diplomatic relationship between the United States and another nation.
During the exclusion era—1882–1943—the problematic enforcement of changing immigration statutes and regulations for Chinese created future diplomatic problems, brought the principle of family reunification into American immigration policy, shaped the culture of immigration enforcement in the United States, and established a precedent for negotiations about American immigration policies. Various changes, generally of a more restrictive character, were added to the Chinese exclusion laws and regulations between 1882 and 1902, when a modified law extended them "until otherwise provided by law." These changes exacerbated relations and triggered repeated negotiations between the two nations.
The most significant of these negotiations occurred in the aftermath of the Geary Act of 1892, which not only extended exclusion for ten years but also required that all Chinese in the United States get a residence certificate (a kind of internal passport) within a year or be deported. The statute also reversed the usual presumption of innocence and provided that "any Chinese person or person of Chinese descent" was deemed to be in the country illegally unless he or she could demonstrate otherwise. This set off a mass civil disobedience campaign orchestrated by Chinese-American community organizations. They urged Chinese Americans not to register and hired a trio of leading constitutional lawyers to challenge the statute. Their suit, Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), was expedited to the Supreme Court, which quickly ruled, five to three, against Fong and two other litigants. Justice Horace Gray, writing for the majority, held that Chinese, like other resident aliens, were entitled "to the safeguards of the Constitution, and to the protection of the laws, in regard to their rights of persons and of property, and to their civil and criminal responsibility," but insisted that the Constitution could not shield them if Congress decided that "their removal is necessary or expedient for the public interest."
At the time of the Court's ruling only some 13,000 Chinese had registered; perhaps 90,000 had not and were presumably liable to immediate deportation. But both cabinet officers responsible for enforcement—Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle and Attorney General Richard Olney—instructed their subordinates not to enforce the law. Carlisle estimated that mass deportations would cost at least $7.3 million and noted that his annual enforcement budget was $25,000. Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham confidentially informed the Chinese minister, Yung Yu, that Congress would soon amend the law so that Chinese could register even though the deadline had passed. In November 1893, Congress extended the deadline by six months, and in that time about 93,000 additional Chinese registered and received the disputed certificates.
While relations between China and the United States were complicated by actions of the federal government toward immigrants, those between Italy and the United States deteriorated because of discrimination by lesser governmental bodies. There was widespread violence directed against Italian Americans, but one outbreak in particular had the most serious international consequences. On 15 October 1890 the police superintendent in New Orleans was murdered by a group of men using sawed-off shotguns; before he died he whispered that the Italians had done it. He had been investigating so-called Mafia influence among the city's large Italian-American population. New Orleans authorities quickly arrested almost 250 local Italian Americans and eventually indicted nineteen of them, including one fourteen-year-old boy, for the murder. Nine were brought to trial. On 13 March 1891 the jury found six not guilty and could not agree on three others. All nine were returned to jail for trial on another charge. The day after the verdict, a notice signed by sixty-one prominent local residents was placed in the morning newspaper inviting "all good citizens" to a 10 A.M . mass meeting "to remedy the failure of justice." A mob of perhaps 5,000 persons assembled, and, led by three members of the local bar, went first to the arsenal where many were issued firearms and then to the parish prison, where they shot and killed eight incarcerated Italians and removed three others and lynched them. Three or four of the victims were Italian citizens and the others were naturalized American citizens. None of the mob was ever punished.
Local public opinion hailed the result, as did much of the nation's press. The New York Times wrote that the victims were "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins" but insisted in the same editorial that the lynching "was not incited by any prejudice against Italians." The Italian government protested, demanding punishment for the lynchers, protection for the Italian Americans of New Orleans, and an indemnity. President Benjamin Harrison himself, acting during an illness of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, directed the American minister in Rome to explain "the embarrassing gap in federalism—that in such cases the state alone has jurisdiction," while rejecting all the demands. There was nothing new about this. Similar responses had been made by the federal government in a number of previous instances, most notably in 1851 when Spaniards had been killed in New Orleans; in 1885 after the Rock Springs, Wyoming, massacre of twenty-eight Chinese miners; and in a whole host of other outrages, mostly against Chinese in the Far West. In all of these cases the president eventually called upon Congress to make an ex gratia payment. Congress, after debate, did so, and the matters were ended. For the Rock Springs affair, for example, the payment was nearly $150,000.
The lynching of Italians in New Orleans took a somewhat different course to the same essential result. Exasperated by the initial stonewalling, the Italian government recalled its minister in Washington but did not break relations. There was foolish talk of war in the press—all agreed that the Italian navy was superior to the American—and naval preparedness advocates used the speculation to their advantage. Eventually good relations were restored, but Harrison settled the matter without the traditional reference to Congress. In his December 1892 message to Congress Harrison reported the payment of $24,330.90 (125,000 francs) to the Italian government, a little over $6,000 per person. The money was taken from the general appropriation for diplomatic expenses. Congress was furious—or pretended to be—because of executive usurpation of its prerogatives and reduced the fund for diplomatic contingencies by $20,000.
A more complex and potentially more serious situation developed from the mistreatment of Japanese in the United States—more serious because of the growing hostility between the United States and Japan over conflicting plans for Pacific expansion and more complex because both local and national discrimination was involved and because major tensions about Japanese immigrants continued for more than two decades. Long before diplomatic tensions over Japanese immigration to western states and the Territory of Hawaii surfaced, Tokyo had shown concern about possible mistreatment of its immigrants in America. As early as the 1890s internal Japanese diplomatic correspondence shows that there were fears in Tokyo that emigrant Japanese workers in the United States, who in many places were filling niches once occupied by Chinese workers, would eventually evoke the same kinds of official treatment—exclusion—that Chinese workers had experienced. This, Japanese officials were convinced, would negatively affect Japan's ambitions to achieve great-power status. The greatest fear—Tokyo's worst nightmare about this subject—was that someday there would be a "Japanese Exclusion Act." This fear—and eventually resentment at the result, which was in effect exclusion—so pervaded Japanese culture that for decades Japanese texts continued to refer to the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 as the "Japanese Exclusion Act."
Anti-Japanese activity had flared in race-sensitive California as early as 1892, when there were fewer than 5,000 Japanese persons in the entire country. In 1905 the state's leading newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, began what can be called an anti-Japanese immigrant crusade—a crusade that the rival publisher William Randolph Hearst soon made his own. In the same year San Francisco labor leaders organized the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, the California legislature passed a resolution calling on Congress to "limit and diminish Japanese immigration," and two California congressmen introduced the first bills calling for exclusion of Japanese into Congress.
Although these events all took place beneath the radar of national press consciousness, they did not escape the notice of the man in the White House. In May 1905, Theodore Roosevelt fumed in a (private) letter about the "foolish offensiveness" of the [mostly Republican] "idiots" of the California legislature, while indicating sympathy for the notion of exclusion of Japanese and muttering about their being "a serious problem in Hawaii." Two months later he instructed the U.S. Minister to Japan, Lloyd C. Griscom, to inform Tokyo that "the American Government and … people" had no sympathy with the agitation and that while "I am President" Japanese would be treated like "other civilized peoples." In his prolix annual message of December 1905, Roosevelt insisted that there should be no discrimination "against any man" who wished to immigrate and be a good citizen, and he specifically included Japanese in a short list of examples of acceptable ethnic groups. In the next paragraph, Roosevelt, who had signed the 1902 extension of Chinese exclusion without hesitation, made it clear that Chinese laborers, "skilled and unskilled," were not acceptable.
Almost a year later, on 11 October 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education ordered all Japanese and Korean pupils to attend the long established "Oriental" school in Chinatown. The announcement attracted little attention in the San Francisco press and seems to have been ignored outside California until nine days later, when garbled reports of what had happened were printed in Tokyo newspapers claiming that all Japanese pupils had been excluded from the public schools. Roosevelt reacted quickly. He wrote his high-ranking Harvard classmate Baron Kentaro Kaneko that he would take action; he also met with and gave similar assurances to the Japanese minister, Viscount Siuzo Aoki, and dispatched a cabinet member and former California congressman, Secretary of Commerce and Labor Victor H. Metcalf, to San Francisco to investigate the matter. In his December 1906 annual message the president formally recommended legislation "providing for the naturalization of Japanese who come here intending to become American citizens." Roosevelt made no serious effort to get such legislation introduced, let alone passed, and just two months later Secretary of State Elihu Root, in reacting to a Japanese proposal that acceptance of exclusion be traded for naturalization, informed American negotiators that "no statute could be passed or treaty ratified" that granted naturalization.
Secretary Metcalf's report was made public on 18 December 1906 and showed that rather than the hundreds or thousands of Japanese pupils discussed in the press there were only ninety-five Japanese students in the entire San Francisco school system, twenty-five of them native-born American citizens. He did find that twenty-seven of the aliens were teenagers enrolled in inappropriate grades because of language problems; the most extreme example was two nineteen-year-olds in the fourth grade. Metcalf's report recommended that age-grade limits be enforced, something that was acceptable to the Japanese community. Otherwise Metcalf found the segregation order unjust and against the public interest. But since the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had affirmed the legality of racial segregation in the United States, the federal government had no power over a state's right to practice it. California politicians of all parties, undoubtedly representing the will of their constituents, adamantly refused to mitigate their discrimination in any way, and, in the session of the legislature that began in January 1907, proposed enacting more anti-Japanese legislation. Roosevelt and Root set to work to ameliorate the situation, and, in something over a year, worked out a solution that is known as the Gentlemen's Agreement, the substance of which is contained in six notes exchanged between the two governments in late 1907 and early 1908. It is instructive to note that Root actually instituted an action in the northern federal district court of California to prohibit segregation of alien Japanese school-children, who enjoyed most-favored-nation rights under the existing commercial treaty with Japan, but could do nothing for the pupils who were American citizens.
In the event, no suit was necessary. Roosevelt summoned members of the school board to Washington, jawboned them in the White House, and got them to rescind their order in February 1907. (The only Japanese pupils actually segregated in California were in a few rural districts around Sacramento. Although that segregation continued, no fuss was made about it, so the Japanese government, which was concerned with "face" rather than principle, never complained.) Then Congress passed an amendment, drafted in the State Department, to a pending immigration bill, which enabled the president to bar by executive order persons with passports issued for any country other than the United States from entering the country. Japan, in turn, agreed to mark any passports issued to laborers, skilled or unskilled, who had not previously established American residence, as not valid for the United States. But the eventual agreement allowed Japan to issue passports valid for the United States to "laborers who have already been in America and to the parents, wives and children of laborers already resident there." Thus the principle of family reunification, which would become a hallmark of American immigration policy, was first introduced as a part of the process of restricting Asian immigration.
The Gentlemen's Agreement is an excellent example of the "unintended consequences" that have characterized much of the legal side of American immigration history. The diplomats and politicians involved assumed that with labor immigration at an end the Japanese American population would decline and the problems that its presence created in a white-dominated racist society would gradually fade away. They did not realize that through the family reunification provisions of the agreement tens of thousands of Japanese men would bring wives to California. Many if not most of these were "picture brides," women married by proxy in Japan to men who in most instances they would not see until they came to America. Most of these newly married couples soon had children who were American citizens by virtue of being born on American soil, which meant that the American Japanese population grew steadily. Eventually the anti-Japanese forces in the United States campaigned without success for a constitutional amendment that would repeal the "birthright citizenship" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and make the children of "aliens ineligible to citizenship" similarly ineligible. (In the 1970s nativist forces in the United States revived such demands but with a different target: they proposed making the American-born children of illegal immigrants ineligible for automatic citizenship.) When the Gentlemen's Agreement went into effect there were probably some 60,000 Japanese persons in the continental United States, the vast majority of them aliens. By 1940 there were more than 125,000, more than two-thirds of them native-born American citizens. Many white Californians and other concerned westerners who had been assured that the Gentlemen's Agreement was tantamount to exclusion came to believe that they had been betrayed by the uncaring politicians back east.
But even before the demographic consequences of the Gentlemen's Agreement became clear, a second crisis arose over Japanese immigrants. This one erupted in 1913 and focused on land rather than on people. Although most Japanese immigrants had come to California as laborers, many soon were able to become agricultural proprietors. As early as 1909 bills had been introduced into the California legislature barring the sale of agricultural land to Japanese, but Republican governors then and in 1911—the California legislature met only every other year—cooperated with Republican presidents in Washington and "sat upon the lid," as Governor Hiram W. Johnson put it. But in 1913, with Johnson still governor and Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House, the lid was off. Although Washington was again taken unawares by the crisis, Tokyo had been expecting it. Its consul general in San Francisco had warned in November 1912 that "the fear-laden anti-Japanese emotion of the people [of California] is a sleeping lion." By the time Wilson took office on 4 March 1913, bills restricting Japanese and other alien landholding had made considerable progress in the California legislature. The Japanese ambassador, Sutemi Chinda, called on the president during Wilson's second day in office: his dispatch to Tokyo quoted Wilson as saying "that the constitution did not allow the federal government to intervene in matters relating to the rights of the individual states." After much debate and publicity, in mid-April the California legislature passed legislation forbidding the ownership of agricultural land by "aliens ineligible to citizenship." This, of course, pointed the bill at Japanese, although it also affected other Asians. Californians argued that the discrimination—if such it was—was caused by federal rather than state law.
Even before Governor Johnson signed the bill, angry anti-American demonstrations erupted in Tokyo: the California legislature had again helped to create an international crisis. The Wilson administration, while trying to adhere to traditional states' rights doctrines, nevertheless felt that it had to at least seem to be taking action. Wilson sent Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan on a cross-country train trip to Sacramento to meet with Governor Johnson and the legislature and urged that the bill not be enacted before Bryan arrived. In the event, Bryan's trip was anti-climactic. Unlike Roosevelt and Root, Wilson and Bryan had nothing to offer the Californians in return for moderation. Bryan returned to Washington, and Johnson signed the Alien Land Act into law: eventually ten other western states passed similar measures.
The California law, which was strengthened in 1920, was relatively ineffective. Japanese farmers and the white entrepreneurs with whom they dealt evaded the law in a number of ways, most of which had been foreseen by Johnson and his advisers. The two major methods were placing land in the name of citizen children or leasing rather than purchasing the land. For a few relatively large-scale operators adoption of a corporate form was also effective. When the California legislature passed an amendment to the land act barring "aliens ineligible to citizenship" from exercising guardianship over their citizen children, the federal courts ruled that such a statute violated the constitutional rights of those children to have their natural parents as guardians.
These disputes, of course, helped to poison relations between Japan and the United States, which were already problematic on other grounds. During the Versailles treaty negotiations and in early sessions of the League of Nations, Japan tried to get questions of immigration and racial equality discussed but the imperialist powers successfully stifled every attempt. (Of course Japan did not have clean hands in such matters, but that is another story.) The final and most traumatic act in the conflicts between the Pacific powers over immigration came in 1924 and involved federal rather than state discrimination.
By the 1920s the American people and the Congress were ready for a general and massive curtailment of immigration. Prior to that time statutory immigration restriction based on race or national origin had been directed only at Asians. The Immigration Act of 1917—best known for imposing a literacy test on some immigrants—had created a "barred zone" expressed in degrees of latitude and longitude, which halted the immigration of most Asians not previously excluded or limited. The first statute to limit most immigration, the Quota Act of 1921, placed numerical limits on European immigration while leaving immigration from the Western Hemisphere largely alone; it did not directly impact Japanese immigration, which was still governed by the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907–1908. Under the 1921 act Japan got a small quota, and Tokyo could not and did not complain that the law was discriminatory. Had Japan been treated as European nations were in the 1924 statute, it would have received the minimum quota of 100, but the version of the more generally restrictive 1924 law that passed the House contained overt discrimination against Japanese by forbidding the immigration of "aliens ineligible to citizenship." In an ill-starred attempt to preserve the Gentlemen's Agreement, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes suggested verbally that Japanese Ambassador Masanao Hanihara write him a letter explaining the Gentlemen's Agreement, whereupon the American would transmit the letter to the Senate in an attempt to get the offending phrase removed. The note, which was not in itself either threatening or blustering, did contain the phrase "grave consequences" in referring to what might happen if the law were enacted with the offending phrase. Henry Cabot Lodge and other senators insisted that the phrase was a "veiled threat" against the United States and stampeded the Senate into accepting the House language. In The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), the historian Robert H. Ferrell presented evidence suggesting that Hughes and others in the State Department either drafted or helped to draft the original note, something that all those concerned categorically denied at the time and later.
How grave were the actual consequences? No one can say. Japan and the United States might well have engaged in what became a "war without mercy" even if no Japanese immigrant had ever come to America. But some authorities, such as George F. Kennan, have argued that the "long and unhappy story" of U.S.–Japanese relations were negatively affected by the fact that "we would repeatedly irritate and offend the sensitive Japanese by our immigration policies and the treatment of people of Japanese lineage."
The 1924 act, which established a pattern of immigration restriction that prevailed until 1965, also established a "consular control system" by providing that aliens subject to immigration control could not be admitted to the United States without a valid visa issued by an American consular officer abroad. Visas were first required as a wartime measure in a 1918 act and were continued in peacetime by a 1921 act, but they were primarily an identification device. The 1924 act for the first time made the visa a major factor in immigration control. Although the State Department often claimed that Congress had tied the government's hands, the fact of the matter is that since 1924 much actual restriction of immigration has been based on the judgment of the individual federal officials administering it. That responsibility has been shared between the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), then in the Department of Labor but switched to the Department of Justice in 1940. The diplomatic control is exercised by granting or failing to grant visas; the INS control is exercised largely at the borders, although since 1925 some INS personnel have been attached to some American embassies abroad as technical advisers. (The number of foreign countries with INS personnel has fluctuated. At the outset of the twenty-first century they were operating in thirty-eight countries. In Canada and a few other places, mostly in the Western Hemisphere, it has become possible to clear U.S. immigration and customs while still on foreign soil.)
The American foreign service—which was white, Christian (overwhelmingly Protestant), and elitist—had long exercised a largely negative influence on American immigration policy. Consular reports had provided much ammunition for the immigration restriction movement since the late nineteenth century. The tenure of Wilbur J. Carr as, in effect, head of the consular service from 1909 to 1937, placed a determined and convinced anti-Semitic nativist in a position to shape the formulation of both immigration and refugee policy. We now know that Carr, a skilled and manipulative bureaucrat, regularly fed anti-immigrant excerpts from unpublished consular reports to restrictionists such as Representative Albert Johnson, chief author of the 1924 immigration act. One Carr memo to him described Polish and Russian Jews as "filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits." Many American consuls shared these views. Richard C. Beer, for example, a career officer serving in Budapest in 1922–1923, complained that the law forced him to give visas to Hungarians, Gypsies, and Jews who were all barbarians and gave his office an odor that "no zoo in the world can equal." Other consular officials, who might not have held such views, took their cues from their chief and the whole tone of the foreign service. During what was left of the "prosperity decade" after 1924 the INS and the State Department were pretty much on the same nativist page, although some INS officials resented their loss of control.
Although there were no statutory limits on immigration from independent nations of the Western Hemisphere until 1965, President Herbert Hoover administratively limited Mexican and other Latin American immigration by use of the highly subjective "likely to become a public charge" clause that had been on the statute books since 1882. The clause had originally been designed to keep out persons who for reasons of physical or mental disability were patently unable to support themselves. From the Hoover administration on, the clause has been interpreted at times to bar persons who were able-bodied but poor. The prospective immigrant could be stopped at the border or at an immigrant receiving station by INS personnel or could have a visa denied by someone in the diplomatic service in the country of origin.
The onset of the Great Depression temporarily reduced immigration pressures—during two years in the early 1930s more immigrants left the United States than entered it—but an entirely different situation developed after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. The unprecedented situation of large numbers of refugees and would-be refugees stemming from a western European power had not been foreseen by the drafters of American immigration legislation. The United States had an immigration policy but not a refugee policy. Congress had previously been favorable to political and religious refugees. Restrictive immigration acts dating from the nineteenth century barred persons with criminal records but always specifically excluded those convicted of political offenses. As late as 1917, in the part of a statute imposing a not very strenuous literacy test as a criterion for admission, Congress specifically exempted any person seeking admission "to avoid religious persecution."
By 1933, however, under the stresses of the Great Depression and after going through what John Higham has aptly termed the "tribal twenties," Congress was in no mood to ease immigration restrictions. And although some of the later apologists for the lack of an effective American refugee policy before the onset of the Holocaust put all or most of the onus on Congress, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt must share that blame. There was nothing even resembling a new deal for immigration policy. To be sure, New Dealers at the top of Frances Perkins's Department of Labor, which continued to administer the INS until 1940, were much more sympathetic to immigrant concerns than the labor movement bureaucrats who had previously run the department. But the anti-immigrant culture of the INS continued. Moreover, the State Department's personnel and policies about immigration and many other matters were little affected by the New Deal. The administrative regulation of immigration was tightened during the early years of the Depression by both sets of government agents: the consular officials abroad and the INS at the borders.
Jews and others seeking visas in the 1930s quickly learned that some American consuls were better than others. George S. Messersmith, consul general in Berlin in the early 1930s and minister to Austria before the Anschluss, at a time when the German quota was undersubscribed, gained a positive rating from Jewish individuals and organizations. Even more proactive for refugees was Messersmith's successor in Berlin, Raymond Geist, who on occasion actually went to concentration camps to arrange the release of Jews with American visas. Although there is no thorough study of the work of American consular officials in Europe during the period between 1933 and Pearl Harbor, it is clear that men like Messersmith and Geist were exceptions and that the majority of consuls were indifferent if not hostile to Jews desiring American visas. The signals consuls received from Carr and other officials in the State Department certainly encouraged them to interpret the law as narrowly as possible.
For example, when Herbert Lehman, Franklin Roosevelt's successor as governor of New York, wrote the president on two occasions in 1935 and 1936 about the difficulties German Jews were having in getting visas from American consulates, Roosevelt assured him, in responses drafted by the State Department, that consular officials were carrying out their duties "in a considerate and humane manner." Irrefutable evidence exists in a number of places to demonstrate that, to the contrary, many officials of the Department of State at home and abroad consistently made it difficult and in many cases impossible for fully eligible refugees to obtain visas. One example will have to stand as surrogate for hundreds of demonstrable cases of consular misfeasance and malfeasance. Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, the oldest Jewish seminary in America, had a Refugee Scholars Project that between 1935 and 1942 brought eleven such scholars to its campus. The 1924 immigration act specifically exempted from quota restriction professors and ministers of any religion as well as their wives and minor children. There should have been no difficulties on the American end in bringing the chosen scholars to Cincinnati. But in almost every case the State Department and especially Avra M. Warren, head of the visa division, raised difficulties, some of which seem to have been invented. In some instances the college, often helped by the intervention of influential individuals, managed to overcome them. In two instances, however, the college was unsuccessful.
The men involved were Arthur Spanier and Albert Lewkowitz. Spanier had been the Hebraica librarian at the Prussian State Library, and after the Nazis dismissed him, a teacher at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Spanier was sent to a concentration camp. The guaranteed offer of an appointment was enough to get him released from the camp but not enough to get him an American visa. The president of Hebrew Union College had to go to Washington even to discover why this was the case. Warren explained that the rejection was because Spanier's principal occupation was as a librarian and because after 1934 the Nazis had demoted the Hochschule (a general term for a place of higher education) to a Lehranstalt (educational institute), and an administrative regulation of the State Department not found in the statute held that a nonquota visa could not be given to a scholar coming to a high status institute in the United States from one of lower status abroad. Lewkowitz, a teacher of philosophy at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary, did get an American visa in Germany. Both men were able to get to the Netherlands and were there when the Germans invaded. The German bombing of Rotterdam destroyed Lewkowitz's papers, and American consular officials there insisted that he get new documents from Germany, an obviously impossible requirement. Visaless, both men were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Lewkowitz was one of the few concentration camp inmates exchanged, and he reached Palestine in 1944. Spanier was murdered in Bergen-Belsen. If highly qualified scholars with impressive institutional sponsorship had difficulties, one can imagine what it was like for less well-placed individuals.
Apart from creating difficulties for refugees seeking visas, the State Department consistently downplayed international attempts to solve or ameliorate the refugee situation. For example, in 1936 brain trusters Felix Frankfurter and Raymond Moley urged Roosevelt to send a delegation that included such prominent persons as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to a 1936 League of Nations conference on refugees. The president instead took the advice of the State Department and sent only a minor diplomatic functionary as an observer. It was then politic for him to accept the State Department's insistence that "the status of all aliens is covered by law and there is no latitude left to the Executive to discuss questions concerning the legal status of aliens." When Roosevelt wanted to do something to he could almost always find a way. Immediately after the Anschluss, he directed that the Austrian quota numbers be used to expand the German quota, and shortly after Kristallnacht, he quietly directed the INS that any political or religious refugees in the United States on six-month visitor's visas could have such visas extended or rolled over every six months. Perhaps 15,000 persons were thus enabled to stay in the United States. On more public occasions however, such as the infamous early 1939 voyage of the German liner Saint Louis, loaded with nearly a thousand refugees whose Cuban visas had been canceled, he again took State Department advice and turned a deaf ear to appeals for American visas while the vessel hove to just off Miami Beach. The Saint Louis returned its passengers to Europe, where many of them perished in the Holocaust.
After the Nazis overran France, Roosevelt showed what a determined president could do. In the summer of 1940 he instructed his Advisory Committee on Refugees to make lists of eminent refugees and told the State Department to issue visas for them. An agent named Varian Fry, operating out of Marseilles and with the cooperation of American vice consuls, managed to get more than a thousand eminent refugees into Spain and on to the United States. Those rescued by these means included Heinrich Mann, Marc Chagall, and Wanda Landowska. But at the same time, Roosevelt appointed his friend Breckinridge Long as assistant secretary of state. A confirmed nativist and anti-Semite, Long was in charge of the visa section and thus oversaw refugee policy. The president eventually became aware of the biases in the State Department, and when he decided in mid-1944 to bring in a "token shipment" of nearly a thousand refugees from American-run camps in Europe, he put Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes in charge. Vice President Walter Mondale's acute 1979 observation that before and during the war the nations of the West "failed the test of civilization" is a sound assessment of American policy.
Two other wartime developments should be noted. First, the State Department became involved in American agricultural policy in connection with the wartime Bracero program, which brought temporary Mexican workers to the United States for work in agriculture and on railroads. The Mexican government was, with good reason, apprehensive about the treatment they might receive, so the State Department was in part responsible for the United States living up to its agreement. Second, the State Department was responsible for the wartime exchanges of diplomats and other enemy nationals with the Axis powers. It was also concerned with the treatment of American civilians in enemy hands, particularly Japan, and because of that justified concern persistently argued for humane treatment for both the few thousand interned Japanese nationals in INS custody and the 120,000 Japanese Americans, both citizen and alien, who were in the custody of the War Relocation Authority.
The war years also witnessed a historic if seemingly minor reversal of American immigration policy with the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Few episodes show the connection between immigration and foreign policy so explicitly. President Roosevelt sent a special message to Congress urging the action. Speaking as commander in chief, he regarded the legislation "as important in the cause of winning the war and of establishing a secure peace." Since China was a U.S. ally and its resistance depended in part on "the spirit of her people and her faith in her allies," the president argued for a show of support:
We owe it to the Chinese to strengthen that faith. One step in this direction is to wipe from the statute books those anachronisms in our laws which forbid the immigration of Chinese people into this country and which bar Chinese residents from American citizenship. Nations, like individuals, make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes of the past and correct them.
In addition, Roosevelt argued that repeal would silence Japanese propaganda and that the small number of Chinese who would enter would cause neither unemployment nor job competition. The president admitted that "While the law would give the Chinese a preferred status over certain other Oriental people, their great contribution to the cause of decency and freedom entitles them to such preference…. Passage will be an earnest of our purpose to apply the policy of the good neighbor to our relations with other peoples."
The repeal of Chinese exclusion was thus sold as a kind of good-behavior prize not for Chinese Americans, thousands of whom were then serving in the U.S. armed forces, but for the Chinese people. Nevertheless, Roosevelt's hint about future policy was right on the mark. Within three years Congress would pass similar special legislation granting naturalization rights and quotas to Filipinos and "natives of India," and in 1952 it would enact legislation ending racial discrimination in naturalization policy. By that time the emphasis was on winning "hearts and minds" in the Cold War.
Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington, Ind., 1987. A good account of nativist sentiment and activity in the State Department.
Corbett, P. Scott. Quiet Passages: The Exchange of Civilians Between the United States and Japan During the Second World War. Kent, Ohio, 1987. Tells the story of the State Department's Special Division.
Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York, 1990. Surveys immigration and naturalization policy.
——. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion. 2d ed. Berkeley, Calif., 1991.
Dinnerstein, Leonard. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York, 1982. Fundamental to an understanding of the postwar shift in American policy toward refugees.
Fry, Varian. Surrender on Demand. New York, 1945. Fry, whose papers are at Columbia University, tells his story.
Gillion, Steven M. "That's Not What We Meant to Do": Reform and Its Unintended Consequences in Twentieth-Century America. New York, 2000. A series of case studies, including one on the 1965 immigration act.
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925. New Brunswick, N.J., 1955. The classic work on American nativism.
Karlin, J. Alexander. "The Indemnification of Aliens Injured by Mob Violence." Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 25 (1945): 235–246. Treats indemnification for victims of violence.
Loewenstein, Sharon. Token Refuge: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Shelter at Oswego, 1944–1946. Bloomington, Ind., 1986. Describes the first mass shipment of refugees.
Meyer, Michael A. "The Refugee Scholars Project of the Hebrew Union College." In Bertram Wallace Korn, ed. A Bicentennial Festschrift for Jacob Rader Marcus. New York, 1976. Most instructive about difficulties to refugee admission created by the State Department.
Mitchell, Christopher, ed. Western Hemisphere Immigration and U.S. Foreign Policy. University Park, Pa., 1992. A collection of essays largely by political scientists.
Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don't Bring Their Women Here: Chinese Female Immigration Before Exclusion. Urbana, Ill., 1999.
Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America. 2d ed. New York, 1992.
——. Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration. New York, 1998. Along with Still the Golden Door, this book is part of the cutting edge of late-twentieth-century immigration history.
Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. 2d ed. Urbana, Ill., 1991.
Schulzinger, Robert D. The Making of the Diplomatic Mind: The Training, Outlook, and Style of United States Foreign Service Officers, 1908–1931. Middletown, Conn., 1975. Although many works on the foreign service ignore its immigration functions, this work is a happy exception.
Schwartz, Donald. "Breckinridge Long." In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York, 2000. This sketch makes the subject's prejudices explicit.
Smith, David A. "From the Mississippi to the Mediterranean: The 1891 New Orleans Lynching and Its Effects on United States Diplomacy and the American Navy." Southern Historian 19 (1998): 60–85.
Wilson, Theodore A. "Wilbur J. Carr." In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York, 2000. This laudatory sketch of Wilbur J. Carr ignores Carr's prejudices and his role in immigration policy.