From Counting to Sifting Immigrants
The United States in the nineteenth century was a nation of immigrants.1 Although American liberal ideology embraced this characteristic as a source of pride for most of the century, many Americans late in the century began to view the immigrant population as a threat. Instead of attracting honest, hardworking folk, America was becoming, in the words of one commentator, "an asylum for paupers, convicts, and cripples."2 Nativists increasingly called for policies to "sift" the desirable from the undesirable immigrants.3
Congress in the 1880s began to make "selective" immigration the official United States policy. Scholars describing the restrictive nature of late nineteenth-century immigration legislation generally point to the growing number of categories of excludable immigrants.4 Yet equally if not more important to restrictionists' goals was the administrative structure created by Congress in 1891. The Immigration Act of 1891 lodged the power to regulate immigration firmly in the hands of the federal government. Furthermore, the act delineated a novel relationship between the administrators of immigration law -- the superintendent of immigration and the secretary of the treasury at that time -- and the federal courts: the decisions of the federal administrative officers were to be final, suggesting that immigration cases would not be subject to judicial review.5 The congressional decision to give federal administrators sole power to enforce immigration laws had significant ramifications for immigration policy, which are explored in later chapters.
Why Congress chose in 1891 to centralize immigration administration and to exclude federal courts from immigration decisions has not been adequately explained. Historians have not appreciated the importance of administrative structure to the implementation of immigration law. Immi