Entrance and Deportation as Social Control Mechanisms: A Look at U.S. Immigration Historiography

Derek Ide | Politics & Government | Analysis | December 31st, 2013

As the hegemonic world system today, all social relations must be understood within the framework of global capitalism. This is particularly true for the transnational movement of migrants across borders and their experiences with modern state immigration systems. The experience of migrants vis-à-vis the US capitalist state is a subject of vital importance for understanding the leading role of the United States in securing and fostering a global capitalist network that extends to every corner of the world. These experiences, which are both shaped by and shape the US economic order, are deeply gendered, racialized, and stratified by class. Thus, the US state plays a formative role in disciplining migrants to serve the global capitalist order, an order which the US serves as both the apex and nexus of in the modern era. The mechanisms which sustain global capitalism are varied, but migration and the laws structuring it compose a fundamental aspect of capitalist order. As such, the variety of ways in which the US and other capitalist states discipline and regulate migrants within the migration process become an important area of analysis, especially for those interested in challenging the myriad forms of oppression which exist under the capitalist mode of production. The regulation of entrance and the power of deportation are both mechanisms of social control that characterize the immigration system. While the immigration system serves domestic and geopolitical objectives as a whole, these two mechanisms are fundamental to its functioning. Through both the entrance mechanism and the deportation mechanism, class, race, gender, political ideology, and sexual orientation become inextricably bound components in a collective system of oppression intended not only to incorporate migrants into the dominant economic order but to perpetuate the existence of that economic order. Thus, class exploitation and all the manifestations of oppression stemming from it are not simply the result of arbitrary policy choices, but are essential to an imperialist system rooted in capitalist expansion.

Three books, representing some of the most recent historiographical trends in immigration history, together form a cogent and coherent exploration of these mechanisms in depth. All three suggest in different ways that a primary function of US immigration policy is to discipline and regulate the migrant in order to serve the interests of the global economic order. Such a narrative can be seen in Amy L. Fairchild'sScience at the Borders: Immigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force (2003), Carl J. Bon Tempo's Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (2008), and Daniel Kanstroom's Deportation Nation: Outsides in American History (2007). Fairchild, as both a historian and Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Colombia University, has explored the role of the state in addressing health issues and how such policies intersect with disease, class, and race. Science at the Borders is both a continuation of this theme and a timely addition to the historiographical record on US immigration. Bon Tempo, Assistant Professor of history at the University of Albany, focuses on public policy history, immigration history, and the history of American foreign policy. His work neatly blends these three areas of interest together. Finally, Kanstroom is a Professor of Law at the Boston College of Law, as well as the Director of the International Human Rights Program and an Associate Director of the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Both his scholarship and activism center on human rights and social justice, specifically insofar as it pertains to US immigration law. All three scholars possess strong credentials which both provide nuance and reinforce one another's analysis through the intersection of their studies.

Fairchild's book, which explores how the medical examination was a tool to inculcate arriving immigrants into the emerging industrial-capitalist system of power from the late 19th to the early 20th century, provides an in-depth analysis of what might be called the entrance mechanism for migrants entering the US. The second book by Bon Tempo, which explicates upon US refugee policies from the mid-20th century until the present, also illuminates how the entrance mechanism has functioned, but does so in a fundamentally different way. While Fairchild emphasizes the role of entrance in disciplining, conditioning, and regulating the body and mind of migrants who would form a key component of US industrial labor, Bon Tempo explores the geopolitical interests which underline and motivate US refugee policies in the US. Thus, the entrance mechanism maintains both domestic and imperial functions, even if, as Bon Tempo argues, these imperial functions are sometimes blunted or softened by domestic pressures. Lastly, Kanstroom's monograph, covering an immense chronological span, adds to the portrait of US immigration by exploring what will be referred to as the deportation mechanism. Both the entrance and deportation mechanisms are powerful tools of social control. These broad conceptual frameworks will be explored in turn, alongside the contributions of each book to understanding these frameworks and their role in maintaining US capitalist hegemony.

Both Fairchild and Bon Tempo focus on the importance of the entrance mechanism in maintaining the machine that is US capitalism. Fairchild convincingly argues that "two distinct imperatives" emerged with regard to the role of science at the border: "to discipline the working class, and to exclude groups that did not make a decidedly positive contribution to the industrial workforce."[1] However, she successfully reconstructs the dominant Ellis Island narrative from one primarily of exclusion to one of inclusion. For her, the primary purpose of the medical examination was to inculcate arriving immigrants into the emerging industrial-capitalist system of power. Dealing roughly with the period 1899 to 1930, she posits that the process of "Americanization" begins at the medical exam and takes on a very specific role. The disciplining of migrants, who are to form the backbone of the U.S. industrial working class, becomes far more important than exclusionary measures to keep the "unwanted" out. The disciplinary function "was a normative expression of power intended not simply to prevent deviant behavior but to promote adoption of core industrial values, to create a cadre of good industrial citizens."[2] While the process of exclusion is maintained as a symbol of power, and functions differently at each port in accordance with various regional concerns, it was ultimately an ancillary goal. Thus, the medical exam served both as an introduction to US capitalism and as a form of indoctrination through which the immigrant must successfully pass to become an "industrial citizen." Here the entrance mechanism, in particular the medical examination, was an inclusionary tool of social control "shaped by an industrial imperative to discipline the laboring force in accordance with industrial expectations."[3] As is seen through Bon Tempo's work, similar exclusionary and inclusionary functions are manifest in the various incarnations of the refugee entrance process.

While Fairchild emphasizes the role of shaping and disciplining the migrant working class, Americans at the Gate directs attention to the entrance mechanism aimed at refugees and how it functions to bolster US foreign policy and global capitalism. Bon Tempo contends that "refugee policies, laws, and programs in the post-World War II era were a product of interactions between foreign policy imperatives and domestic political and cultural considerations."[4] In other words, "refugee affairs clearly demonstrate that the United States' domestic and international histories should not-and indeed cannot-be disaggregated."[5] While the actual administrative process allowed for a significant level of arbitrariness, most of US refugee policy after World War II was driven by admitting refugees who adhered to a mix of political anticommunism and what Bon Tempo calls "apolitical" characteristics, including particular gender roles, industriousness, and consumption. [6] For nearly three decades, the "refugee equals anticommunist European" paradigm was dominant. According to Bon Tempo, "anticommunism bonded foreign policies, domestic politics and culture, and refugee affairs."[7] Bon Tempo juxtaposes a variety of refugee crises, drawing out an important narrative that emphasizes the role of geopolitical considerations in shaping refugee policy. For instance, the decision to take in half a million Cuban refugees between 1959 and 1973 and fund their resettlement advanced ruling class US interests with an anti-Castro and anticommunist campaign. This stands in stark contrast with the contempt brought upon Haitian refugees as they fled the US-backed François "Papa Doc" Duvalier dictatorship. Similarly, the Ford administration only reluctantly, and after the advent of a "human rights" campaign by significant segments of US civil society, set up a small parole program for 400 Chilean refugees fleeing the neoliberal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1975.[8] This was a full two years after the CIA had backed the brutal military coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and brought a reign of terror to Chile in which leftists, students, community organizers, and trade unionists were persecuted. In this way the refugee entrance mechanism of the state became intricately bound up with and central to establishing US hegemony and capitalist dominance across the planet.

In contrast with both Fairchild and Bon Tempo, Kanstroom fills a large void by detailing the post-entry mechanism upon which the immigration system is built: deportation. Kanstroom posits that "deportation is now, and always has been… a powerful tool of discretionary social control, a key feature of the national security state, and a most tangible component of the recurrent episodes of xenophobia that have bedeviled our nation of immigrants." [9] He continues by elucidating upon the two basic types of deportation laws: extended border control and post-entry social control. Deportation, in both of its manifestations, serves the goal of social control through "scapegoating, ostracism, family and community separation, and, of course, banishment."[10] This social control function serves not only to enervate the power of migrant labor directly; it also is a powerful tool in maintaining capitalist hegemony through control of citizen ideology. For instance, Kanstroom argues that the deportation system "facilitates irrational discrimination against the noncitizens who live, work, pay taxes, raise children, and participate in communities alongside citizens every day."[11] Indeed, this "irrational discrimination" serves to undermine the material class interests that working people, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship, share with one another. For the capitalist system, this "irrational discrimination" is a rational way of maintaining class power and disparity through racial oppression. Kanstroom concludes by arguing that "extended border control deportation… has functioned primarily as a labor control device, a kind of extra tool in the hands of large businesses… to provide a cheap, flexible, and largely rightless labor supply."[12] Thus, the deportation mechanism has been a tool in the hands of capitalists not only to maintain ideological conformity, but to regulate the supply and condition of labor.

It must be noted that both Fairchild and Bon Tempo engage the deportation mechanisms of immigration policy. However, for both authors this is an ancillary mechanism that does not occupy a central role in their argument. For Fairchild, the deportation mechanism is evidenced by the symbol of exclusionary power, through which, in a very public process, migrants deemed unfit for the US industrial order are excluded from entrance and deported. Bon Tempo engages the social control mechanism by focusing both on the propaganda and settlement initiatives undertaken by the US government for specific refugee groups. He also explores the exclusionary function of refugee policy when he juxtaposes the treatment of "unacceptable" refugees, such as Haitians fleeing US-backed dictators, and "open door" refugees, such as Hungarians or Cubans leaving Communist countries.

In terms of organization, Science at the Borders is split into two parts, each consisting of three chapters. The first deals with what Fairchild labels the "story of large numbers," or the inclusionary function of the Public Health Service medical exam. In this part she argues that the changing needs of the industrial order in post-Civil War U.S. society required a large influx of migrant labor. As such, the medical exam served to "discipline the laboring body." This was accomplished both physically, manifest in "the line" and the public spectacle known as the "medical gaze," and figuratively, as immigrants were introduced to the bureaucratic principles of scientific management which they were expected to acquiesce to as the new proletariat. In the second part, Fairchild addresses the exam's exclusionary function, which has been the main focus of the medical exam in historiographical literature. Calling this the "story of small numbers," given the relatively low deportation rate, she addresses how race and class intersect with interpretation and identification of disease. Fairchild addresses the various points of entry for immigrants, explicating how regional needs and pressures affected conceptions of race, class, and disease. In this way she compliments Bon Tempo's argument that domestic pressures were important in shaping the entrance mechanism. Finally, Fairchild adumbrates the patterns of medical exclusion, as well as the cooperation and, at times, tension which existed between the Public Health Service (PHS) and the Immigration Service (IS) in the exclusionary process.

Fairchild utilizes an incisive theoretical framework buttressed both by an exhaustive statistical analysis of immigration and exclusion patterns. Alongside her data, a plethora of primary source material is woven in to form a cohesive narrative that draws on a variety of sources. Such primary sources include the testimony, diaries, and written works of PHS and IS officials, eugenicist literature and public policy debates, laws concerning immigration, as well as stories, poems, and memories of immigrants passing through various entry points. In an exceedingly detailed manner, Fairchild utilizes this wide array of source material to compose a compelling and convincing argument.

While Science at the Borders is organized thematically, Americans at the Gate is organized chronologically. Including an introduction, seven chapters, and an epilogue, Bon Tempo takes the reader through the continuities and convolutions of US refugee policies as geopolitics and domestic pressures each exert their own pressures. Chapter one deals with the "failure" of the US to develop any sort of refugee program from 1900 to 1952. Indeed, it was not until after World War II that the US began, amidst the Cold War's incessant need for propaganda victories, that a refugee program came into being. Chapter two and three explore the "refugee equals anticommunist European" equation, dealing in large part with the Hungarian refugee campaign in the 1950s. By 1957, the battle between what Bon Tempo labels liberalizers and restrictionists is in full swing, and the contours of refugee policy can be attributed partly to domestic pressures from these groups. This battle forms the focus of chapter four. Chapter five explores the dynamics of the Cuban refugee period from 1959 to 1966, another example where geopolitical and class considerations were paramount. In chapter six, Bon Tempo addresses the shift from the Cold War paradigm to a "human rights" paradigm. Chapter seven shows how the Cold War paradigm continues to shape US policy during the Reagan era, even as civil society organizations push for change. Finally, Bon Tempo closes with a discussion of post-Cold War refugee policy, making a plea for an "open door" policy in which "men, women, and children from all around the globe who suffer from violence, persecution, and terror." [13] Bon Tempo draws on wide array of sources to make his argument. He explores refugee policy itself, as well as the role of administrators in handling the policy. Memoirs of and debates amongst refugee administrators, public opinion polls, newspaper articles, propaganda material for resettlement campaigns, and a variety of other sources are utilized. Bon Tempo adequately shows that how the entrance mechanism in refugee policy was driven by the need to secure geopolitical imperatives. This was in spite of the efforts of some segments of civil society attempting to ameliorate or negate the worst manifestations of such imperatives.

Deportation Nation , like Americans at the Gate, is organized chronologically. After the introduction, Kanstroom begins with his longest chapter, drawing on antecedents to the modern deportation system. Here he develops an analytically broad notion of deportation which encompasses the conventional expulsion of migrants as well as the removal of American Indians and the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa, among others. Kanstroom moves on in the third chapter to analyze Chinese Exclusion, adumbrating the roots of the conceptual framework he calls "post-entry social control." In chapter four he outlines what he refers to as the "second wave" of deportations in the early 20th century. During this period deportation as a political tool of social control became refined, with labor activists, trade unionists, socialists, communists, anarchists, and dissidents of all sorts being deported or threatened with deportation. This chapter temporally overlaps with Fairchild's scope. For the US ruling class, just as disciplining incoming migrants was a vital function of the entrance mechanism, Kanstroom shows how the deportation mechanism was a tool for "regulating a new society," exercising post-entry social control over a diverse body of immigrant labor.[14] Kanstroom analyzes the "third wave" of deportations from 1930 to 1964 in his fifth chapter. This period was characterized by a "highly technical, bureaucratic system" with "harsh post-entry social control crackdowns on 'criminal aliens' and ideological dissidents," as well as attempts to "control the southern border."[15] This period, with its characteristic erosion of constitutional rights, set the stage for the modern deportation system, which he deals with in chapter six. Arguably his weakest chapter, Kanstroom deals with the period from 1965 to 2006 and concludes by adumbrating a variety of forms of "discretion" exercised by immigration officials. Kanstroom makes use of a wide array of sources, including deportation hearings, laws and legal rulings, and case law. He also draws rather artfully on music, poems, writings, and other materials from those who engaged the deportation system, either as its victims or as opponents of it.

The contributions that each text makes to US immigration historiography cannot be underestimated. Fairchild's analysis of the complex medical inspection process brilliantly reconfigures the narrative of Ellis Island from one of exclusion to one of inclusion into the emerging industrial order. Even while nativism ran high, exclusion was never the primary objective of the medical inspection during the early 20th century. This novel approach to understanding both the inclusionary and exclusionary functions of the entrance mechanism within the US immigration system elucidates upon the state's role in directing and strengthening the capitalist economic order. Bon Tempo's contribution to the historiography is equally important. He positions his work within the "new immigration" history of scholars such as Mai Ngai, Gary Gerstle, Dan Tichenor, and Aristide Zolberg, emphasizing the transnational nature of migration across borders. He provides the reader with a glimpse into the ways in which US refugee policy facilitated geopolitical goals and augmented global capitalism with the US at the helm. While his monograph allows for significant nuance, indicating the complex ways in which domestic pressures either buttressed or enervated the state's ability to pursue their geopolitical and economic prerogatives. This was especially true of the 1960s liberation struggles and the human rights movement of civil society during the 1970s. Bon Tempo's work is not without its drawbacks, however. At times he provides too much leniency to the US state's function as a humanitarian tool, such as when he laments Clinton's decision not to militarily intervene in Rwanda. [16] He also fails to adequately situate refugee policy within a larger theoretical framework of capitalist social relations. Despite the weaknesses inherent in a liberal critique such as his, the work is well-researched and compelling. Finally, Kanstroom provides a persuasive humanitarian and political argument against the US deportation system, a system that has functioned as both a tool in the hands of business and a social control mechanism to de-democratize political culture. Another significant way in which his work contributes to the historiography is its emphasis on the antecedents of deportation. He constructs a broad definition of deportation with roots extending far beyond the construction of the official deportation mechanisms that came with Chinese exclusion. This approach, drawing on past precedent to inform the future, is a welcome one for historians and activists seeking to understand the development of the US state and how it has bolstered capitalist hegemony here and abroad.

Fairchild's Science at the Borders, Bon Tempo's Americans at the Gate, and Kanstroom's Deportation Nation are all vital and valuable contributions to the scholastic record on US immigration history. However, they are not just sterile academic tracts to be read and discussed in elite circles. They are, in one way or another, all passionate pleas for a humanizing, democratic alternative to the model of immigration which currently dictates the lives of millions of people, both inside and outside of US borders. Fairchild and Bon Tempo's explications upon the function of the entrance mechanism, as well as Kanstroom's emphasis on the deportation mechanism, form a cohesive narrative that facilitates understanding of the state's role in disciplining labor, enforcing social control, and maintaining US capitalist hegemony. These three books come together in an eloquent tripartite attack on the injustices of US immigration policy. All three ought to be on the reading lists of those who wish to change US immigration policy for the better or challenge the state-capitalist model of social relations which places profit over people.


[1] Amy L. Fairchild, Science at the Borders: Immigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2003), 8.

[2] Fairchild, 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 3.

[5] Bon Tempo, 3.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History (Cambrdige: Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.

[10] Kanstroom, 5.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 245.

[13] Bon Tempo, 206.

[14] Kanstroom, 132.

[15] Ibid., 162.

[16] Bon tempo, 198.