Saturday, September 06, 2008

Guarding the Golden Door by Roger Daniels: Review

In Guarding the Golden Door Daniels presents an overview of the development immigration policy in the United States from the founding of the Republic through 2003. America has had a love/hate relationship with its immigrant population, on the one hand reveling in the nation’s immigrant past while, on the other, rejecting the immigrant present (Daniels, 6).

Opposition to immigration has successively centered on exclusion because of religion (e.g. the Irish and German and Catholic menace which gave rise to Protestant nativism in the 1840’s), race (e.g. Chinese exclusion act of 1882) and ethnicity (e.g. Immigration Act of 1924 setting quotas on the basis of national origin). (Daniels, 11).

Underlying these differences are more subtle arguments: (1)Because of religion, race or ethnicity these groups are too “other”, and therefore cannot be assimilated into American culture. The un-assimilated presence of these groups, so the argument runs, will corrupt American values; (2) Immigrant groups, because of innate inferiority or prior cultural disposition, are not capable of self-government and are therefore a danger to our political institutions;(3) An influx of immigrants will result in loss of jobs for native Americans, and will bring about a lower standard of living.

American immigration policy has manifested both liberal and pragmatic impulses, but has predominantly been driven by pragmatic considerations. The founding fathers recognized the need for immigration to provide cheap labor in the building of the new nation. (The introduction of slavery into the South was largely the result of inadequate immigration during colonial times. The lack of sufficient indentured white servants to work plantations resulted in the forced “immigration” of Africans beginning in the late 1600’s). Chinese immigration was encouraged during the period of the building of the trans-continental railroad, when cheap labor was needed, but anti-Chinese agitation increased after the driving of the “golden Spike” in 1869 (Daniel’s, 12). Interestingly, it was Senator Charles Sumner, the great abolitionist, who was the champion of a liberal immigration policy towards the Chinese, calling for a color-blind naturalization statute (Daniels, 119). Sumner recognized that the same liberal impulses that animated abolitionists before the Civil War should be applied to immigration policy. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 represents the triumph of the economic interests which did not want to create unintended social consequences (i.e. the growth of a large unassimilated racial minority) once its economic goals had been realized.

Other examples of the primacy of the economic motive are seen in Immigration Act of 1924, wherein quotas were not extended to most Western Hemisphere nations because many Southwestern and Western legislators insisted their regions needed Mexican laborers (Daniels, 52), in the exemption of Filipinos from immigration restrictions into Hawaii if the Secretary of the Interior thought the importation of more Filipino laborers was advisable (Daniels, 72), and in the push to bring temporary Mexican workers into the U.S. during World War II because, as Herbert Hoover wrote at the time, “…we need every bit of this labor we can get and need it badly.”

U.S. immigration policy underwent a change after World War II. Prior to World War II, America had a tradition of isolationism. After World War II America became a world power. Ideas of Nordic superiority were rejected (Daniels, 116). After having defeated the Nazi ideology of racial superiority the United States could hardly embrace such an ideology as it entered into a global contest for “hearts and minds” with the Soviet Union. Henceforth, foreign policy would take primacy in matters of immigration and America would increasingly embrace multi-culturalism as a national ideal. Economic pragmatism with regard to immigration policy gave way to geo-political pragmatism with regard to immigration policy.

A brief look at the background of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the relation of race and class in the American labor movement.

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