The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965

The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965

The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965

The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965


The Qualities of a Citizentraces the application of U. S. immigration and naturalization law to women from the 1870s to the late 1960s. Like no other book before, it explores how racialized, gendered, and historical anxieties shaped our current understandings of the histories of immigrant women. The book takes us from the first federal immigration restrictions against Asian prostitutes in the 1870s to the immigration "reform" measures of the late 1960s. Throughout this period, topics such as morality, family, marriage, poverty, and nationality structured historical debates over women's immigration and citizenship. At the border, women immigrants, immigration officials, social service providers, and federal judges argued the grounds on which women would be included within the nation. As interview transcripts and court documents reveal, when, where, and how women were welcomed into the country depended on their racial status, their roles in the family, and their work skills. Gender and race mattered. The book emphasizes the comparative nature of racial ideologies in which the inclusion of one group often came with the exclusion of another. It explores how U. S. officials insisted on the link between race and gender in understanding America's peculiar brand of nationalism. It also serves as a social history of the law, detailing women's experiences and strategies, successes and failures, to belong to the nation.


Testifying in 1930 before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Kenneth Y. Fung, executive secretary of the Chinese American Citizens' Alliance of San Francisco, argued for the primacy of moral law over the dictates of immigration policy. The threat to the nation, Fung suggested, lay not in the inclusion of more racial others, but in the exclusion and separation of increasing numbers of families. “The home is the basis of the life of the Nation,” Fung warned, “and without a wife and mother a home can hardly exist.” Fung cautioned committee members against allowing the appearance of racial difference to cloud what united all Americans: a belief in the moral sanctity of the family. A wife's place was with her husband, Fung argued, as a mother to future citizens and as a bulwark against moral decay.

At the heart of Fung's testimony was a debate over the place of wives in United States immigration and naturalization law. For many Americans and would-be Americans, family unity was a civic right. Immigrant wives circumvented racial, geographic, and medical exclusions through their privileged position in the law. When she married a citizen or a resident immigrant, an alien woman became an alien wife, and her new marital status could make all the difference in determining her rights and privileges under the law. Immigration and naturalization laws dictating racial exclusion collided with those encouraging family reunification. As a result, while loyal wives would continue to find favor in the law for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, suspect marriages were held

According to Fung, “A law permanently separating a husband from his wife is an unnat
ural law,” a law “contrary to common humanity” and contrary to “the institutions of civi
lized society.” Testimony of Kenneth Y. Fung, Wives of American Citizens of the Oriental
Race: Hearings before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization,
1930, HR 2404,
HR a5654, HR 10524; House of Representatives, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., Washington, D.C.,

Fung testified before the House Committee as an advocate for legislation that would
allow Chinese wives of American citizens to join their husbands in the United States despite
severe race-based exclusion laws that prohibited the immigration of people from Asia. As
committee members questioned Fung, concerns about miscegenation and racial heterogene
ity weighed heavily against arguments for gender traditionalism and the right of a male
citizen to the company of his alien wife. Ibid., 548, 554.

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