I talked with Hirota, a visiting assistant professor at the City College of New York, about the way poverty has shaped government policies on immigration. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Emma Green: What’s the historical connection between poverty and immigration restrictions in the United States?
Hidetaka Hirota: Immigration restriction in the United States was rooted in poverty. The British colonists introduced a law which regulated the movement of the poor, including the expulsion of poor people from their territory. That model developed into passenger laws for prohibiting the landing of poor people. The critical turning point came in the 1840s and ’50s, when a large number of impoverished Irish immigrants arrived in the United States. New York and Massachusetts were two major receiving states. They responded by enhancing and strengthening their laws to more effectively restrict the immigration of poor Irish people.
This really laid a framework for immigration control in the United States. In the 1870s, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared some of the state passenger laws unconstitutional, these two states started a campaign to transform their state laws into federal laws. The result was America’s first national immigration laws.
Green: How do you tease apart Americans’ economic reasons for wanting to keep immigrants out versus cultural or religious prejudice?
Hirota: These laws were targeted against poor immigrants, rather than against all Irish immigrants. In that sense, the poverty of immigrants was at the core of state-level immigration policy.
But at the same time, such policy would not have developed if there was no strong cultural and religious prejudice, especially against Irish Catholics. Ethnic prejudice really facilitated the formation of state policies that targeted the destitute.
Green: What was the distinction in early American immigration laws between those who were poor and those who had skills or were wealthy?
Hirota: If you had skills or resources, there was no obstacle for landing. But if you were poor and didn’t have financial resources, you wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States unless the shipmaster paid a bond to the government—money that could be spent if people became paupers and required public assistance.
According to The Washington Post, the Trump administration will seek to deny any alien who is “likely to become a public charge.” This clause has a notorious history, precisely because of the vagueness and subjective nature of the adjective “likely.” The term comes from state-level passenger laws. Massachusetts used the term in the 18th century, and New York did, too.
The tricky thing about this clause is that officers could reject immigrants even if they were not actually paupers—officers could interpret the adjective “likely” in any way they liked. The clause was a convenient tool to inject religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice into technically neutral immigration law.