Philip D. Erenrich

Philip D.  Erenrich  ABD  email student

Field of Study
Modern American History, Immigration

Andrew W. Cohen

Dissertation Title
Constructing the Gypsy: Immigration and Race in the US, 1891-1932

Dissertation Description

“Constructing the Gypsy” examines how US immigration policy and its enforcement contributed to the formation of a “gypsy race” from 1891 to 1932. I argue that Americans and immigration officers identified gypsies by way of life rather than by phenotype, language, religion, or nationality. This practice conflated ethnic Romani with other traveling groups, placing them all under the appellation “gypsy.” In so doing, the state, the public, and interested parties constructed a gypsy race by extending the group’s membership to those previously not included. Americans introduced new variables into their racial ideology by foregoing customary markers of race. This implicitly raised the specter of race as a malleable category in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century human taxonomy and underscores the social dimension of race formation. Indeed, immigration officers, journalists, amateur ethnologists and social scientists recast traditional representations of gypsies to fit their contemporary, and quickly changing, world. The "new" images demonstrably expressed the vast and rapid social, economic, ideological, and spatial transformations effected largely by industrialization.  

This dissertation challenges the conventional immigration narrative of episodically legislated racism bookended by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the National Origins Act. It shows that the Immigration Service consistently excluded immigrants based on race from the late-nineteenth century through the early-twentieth century. Despite the lack of explicit legislation barring gypsies, immigration officials used racially nonspecific provisions, such as “likely to become a public charge,” to exclude gypsies as a race. Furthermore, it demonstrates that gypsy stereotypes, which permeated American society, contaminated decisions to admit or exclude them, suggesting that cultural assumptions influenced the enforcement of immigration policy.

My “on the ground” approach enables “Constructing the Gypsy” to offer unique insights into the evolution of the administrative state, the attempted formation of a national identity, and modern industrialism's impact on social relations. I focus on the actions of low-level bureaucrats, immigration inspectors, and the writings of amateur scholars. Rather than a “from the bottom up-top down” dynamic, I place these actors at the juncture of the two. Immigration officers had to negotiate federal policy, public expectations, and their own prejudices in a way that kept the immigration system from breaking down. While their actions might have percolated upward into the halls of policymaking, I look at how they affected the everyday American experience.