Guarding the Golden Door
American immigration history is the story of bonded, free, and enslaved migrant labor. Immigration to a settler society advances resource extraction and economic development. Extracting agricultural products and natural resources from land can Require forced labor. Over the last 30 years the United States has been turning once again into a nation of immigrants. Roger Daniels is especially sensitive to the role of race and ethnicity in shaping American immigration policy. Daniel provides an expert reexamination of American immigration policy and immigrant history.
Daniels book builds upon his lifetime of work in American immigration and Asian American history. He notes that Americans have a dualistic attitude. On one part reveling in the nation’s immigrant past, and on the other rejecting much of its immigrant present” (p. 6). He identifies important points in the history of immigration to the United States, beginning with the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and following the twists and turns in official policy up to the present debate on how to control illegal immigration.
One of the great merits of Guarding the Golden Door, his comprehensive overview of that policy since 1882, giving appropriate attention to unrelenting efforts to keep out Asians in their near-total exclusion in 1924. Throughout, the author argues that immigration policy is often based on unfounded assumptions and often produces results completely opposite to those intended. The gates were narrowed in the 1920s for Europeans as well, and drawn still tighter during the Depression, with particularly dire consequences for persecuted Jews and others in desperate need of asylum.
The golden door all began from Ellis Island. Ellis Island is located at the upper bay just off the New Jersey coast within the shadow of the stature of liberty. From 1892-1954 over twelve million immigrants entered the united states through Ellis Island, a small Island in New York Harbor. Many came because they were afraid of circumstances in their formal lands; this was poverty, famine, industrialization, political or religious persecution and war. America to the rest of the world was a place of liberty, freedom and a land of opportunities.
Coming into this beautiful land of America, the gate way and the golden door was Ellis Island. Daniels’s work is particularly striking when detailing the story of Asian immigration to the United States. For example, in the 19th century Chinese immigrants were nearly entirely male; it was not until after World War II that large numbers of Chinese women were admitted, many as war brides. The book is a survey written in two parts providing a chronological account of immigration policy, law, and politics in the American Century.
Part 1, “The Golden Door Opens and Closes, 1882–1965,” has seven chapters. Part 2, “Changing Patterns in a Changing World,” has five chapters and deals with 1965–2000. An epilogue speculates on the direction of immigration policy after 2001. Daniels’s book deals primarily in immigration history and legislation; public policy; and, to a smaller extent, political and institutional history. I credit Daniels’s book in that it puts in proper perspective changes enacted to immigration law during the McCarthy era.
Daniels critiques liberal historians for failing to recognize advances towards race neutrality in laws affecting migrants passed at that time. In particular, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 “helped lay the demographic basis for the multiculturalism that emerged in the United States at the end of the twentieth century” (p. 113). 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. Another of Daniels strength is the way this work integrates the Asian American critique, including important work by several Asian American historians such as Mae Ngai, in its overall account of U.
S. immigration history. Daniels is not shy about acknowledging the racism in American law and permeating administrative regulation of the kinds of bodies “whom we shall welcome” in different periods (pp. 122–23). Although focusing on the period after 1882, he acknowledges the earlier troubled history regarding the suppression of the African slave trade. He also addresses the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s response to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and occupied Europe’s death camps during World War II. U. S. mmigration 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. American immigration policy has manifested both liberal and practical differences, but has predominantly been driven by sensitive 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. As a pioneering historian of Japanese Americans, Daniels does not spare the U. S. government for its racist wartime concentration camp policy for Japanese “aliens and non-aliens alike” (p. 8). Before 1882, the country had no immigration policy: anyone who got here could stay here. But Americans already living here have always felt ambivalent toward new arrivals; while recognizing that immigrants provide cheap and willing labor, they have doubted the ability of various groups to assimilate. Benjamin Franklin worried about the Germans, and later generations worried about the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews. Historically, these fears have been expressed in terms of race; today, culture” is the preferred term to distinguish the useful immigrants from the purportedly dangerous ones. Daniels sees immigration policy moving in long waves. From 1882 to 1921, the doors were slowly closed. Immigration policy was tightest between the two world wars, but controls began to relax during Harry Truman’s presidency. A second period of openness came in the amnesties of the 1980s. Now, with the percentage of foreign-born residents comparable to levels of a century ago, there may be further efforts at tightening ahead.
Throughout history, as the author points out, each political administration has had different issues to deal with regarding immigrants and refugees, from the Vietnam War refugee influx to the Cuban asylum-seekers of the 1980’s and 1990’s, to today’s heavily Mexican and Central American immigrants, legal and illegal. With each differing immigrant population, immigration law tried to adapt and change, sometimes successfully and other times ending in unintentional results.
What the reader comes to understand in Guarding the Golden Door is that these groups of people do not come here to take advantage of America, but to become American out of a deep respect, honor and admiration of what this country stands for. Sometimes, in the case of refugees and asylum-seekers, they come here to save their own lives, or the lives of their children. What the reader also comes to understand is that which groups of people are allowed in is not entirely a just and humane issue, but often the result of governmental preferences, societal prejudices and economic demands of the time.
Obviously, the message here is that immigration laws and national policies have not always welcomed everyone with open arms. In the 1880’s, the Chinese were the targets of anti-immigration policies. Over a century later, it would be black Haitians who were discouraged, even prevented from coming here, and today the discrimination continues, this time toward Muslims and Arabic peoples. Nor have immigration reforms, as we come to learn, always “reformed” existing laws for the betterment of the people coming here OR for those already settled here and trying desperately to earn a decent living.