Day 13 of the Institute: State Laws and Migration to the American West

Prof. Elliott Barkan, Prof Emeritus at California State University – San Bernardino. Research focuses on immigration and naturalization, with particular interest in 20th century comparative ethnic studies. An author of many books, in today’s lecture he’ll focus on immigrant experiences in the western states.
Prof. Barkan started with the importance of the original sources when dealing with immigration history, saying many historians get basic facts wrong by quoting from a secondary sources.

The lecture focuses on two points:

Point 1: The important of original sources.

Prof. Barkan was the first historian to use the statistics to write the story of immigrants. He gained first access to the naturalized citizens’ data from the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). He’s also the first to conduct a public opinion polls towards immigrants. He believes a pattern could be produced by looking at the numbers because historians, by nature are story tellers who deal with narratives. Stories capture certain aspects of the larger narratives of immigrant experiences.

Prof. Barkan read a story of Jewish immigrant man who in mid 19th century started peddling, getting credit and starting more business including buying and selling ships. One important rule to story writing: be faithful to the stories. Barkan notated a theme that runs through immigrant stories is risk-taking, decision making as it relates who leaves and who stays in the old country. This is so because leaving from home village or town takes enormous courage even when there are a networks and social capitals. These decisions are collectively made by families mostly.

The gender aspect of immigrant stories is important too. Immigrating to America was liberating to many women because they could work outside the home. This was not common in many cultures where patriarchy keeps women confined to home.

The discussion shifted to how one makes judgment on what immigrant stories are authentic and how what one chooses represents the larger immigrant voice? Prof. Barkan summed up his answer that it’s up to the historian as an expert to make that judgment call. The discussion moved into how historians privilege the written word over spoken word.

Barkan moved on and discussed on a story on an Imam on 5th Mosque Brooklyn, New York, who was featured in New York Times article, looking into his experience of working with diverse Muslim women and counseling them about modern problems. This was an example of how stories in newspapers can be used as a basis for building narratives.

Barkan observed one fundamental fact about immigrants: if you want to get ahead in an economical way, you have to learn English. Monolingual foreign language immigrants have the lowest income, second level is bilingual and the highest income group of immigrants are the ones who speak English as native language. The process of Americanization of immigrants are being undermined, in his opinion, by charter schools because they replace the public schools, the historical institution of assimilation of immigrants.

Similarly, the civic religion – July 4th, the Labor Day and Thanks Giving – serves as vehicles for assimilation. They are the starting point of Americanization because they provide immigrants with neutral holidays that don’t conflict with their religious traditions.

The American West is historically presented as though it was built by Americans from the East. The fact is that it was built by immigrants. The railroads and bridges were mostly built by first or second generation immigrants. By 1920s, 1/3 of all the population of Western states was immigrants.

Point 2: Evolution of Immigration Laws :

Immigration laws result from the inter-play between city, state and federal governments. The tension between the three levels of governments gives rise to the shape and reach of immigration laws. Example of this legal tension is the San Francisco city ordinances that targeted Chinese laundries to drive out of business by promulgating regulations that were too difficult to follow. This eventually become the basis to the Chinese Exclusion Act that Congress enacted which prohibited Chinese from becoming citizens. The case of Wong Kim Ark, a native born American of Chinese descent who traveled to China but was denied to return because of Exclusion Act was litigated at the US Supreme Court. In 1898 the Supreme Court ruled in his favor based on the Fourteenth Amendment of equal treatment. This landmark ruling was celebrated all across in Chinatowns in America.

A recommended book on Chinese immigrants’ treatment in 19th century is Ericka Lee’s book on this period. The significant thing about various immigration laws was not the law itself but how it’s interpreted. When law was enacted by the Congress, it was up to the immigration officials to decide how the law is to be carried out. When particular laws reaches the officials, they would interpret it and put their initials in it. As the law reaches various administrative levels, more and more officials will do the same. This shows how enforcing officials have had disproportionate influence on the law, sometimes interpreting in ways that are favorable to immigrants, other times enforcing the law in a much harsher way than the law intended. American immigration law is, in this sense, according to Prof. Barkan, “a series of initials” and interpretations of INS officials.

The Japanese immigrants in California in early 20th century are another example of how immigration laws results from the intersection of foreign policy, congress, state and city laws. In this case, cities and state of California were enacting discriminatory laws against Japanese and were pressuring the Congress to do the same but the State Department lobbied against this because of the resulting diplomatic headache with the imperial Japan, a raising world power at the time.

After Wong Kim Ark’s land mark ruling, the second most important legal step was the repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act of 1946 and its expanded version of 1952 that eliminated all racial barriers to legal citizenship. This further led to 1965 Immigration Act that leveled the field and resulted within few years the fact that over half of immigrants admitted in the subsequent years were of Asian descent.

The lecture ended with Prof. Barkan’s analysis of citizenship as another important dimension of immigration laws.Citizenship is how immigrants become engaged in American society, gain privileges and protections. Citizenship is the lynchpin of chain immigration which explains ethnic immigrant enclaves. Once one gets citizenships, they tend to sponsor family members and spouses who sponsor more family members and spouses, setting off a chain migration.


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