"The Assumption of Identity" tells the story of
the exclusion and deportation of "gypsy" immigrants after the federal
takeover of immigration policy and its enforcement. More broadly, it examines
the racializing power of culture, science, and the state. It demonstrates that
gypsy stereotypes found in popular and authoritative sources influenced
decisions to admit or to exclude supposed gypsy immigrants, belying the
Immigration Service's claims of impartial enforcement of immigration policy. In
doing so, this study challenges the conventional immigration narrative of
episodically legislated racism bookended by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
and the National Origins Act of 1924. It shows that the Immigration Service
consistently excluded immigrants on racial grounds from the late-nineteenth
century through the early-twentieth century.
Gypsies posed a unique problem for immigration inspectors.
Indeed, gypsies' international profile frequently nullified conventional
methods of identification. They immigrated from more than a dozen countries
inside and outside Europe; they were frequently multilingual; they often
integrated their rituals with those of the respective nation's prevailing
religious practices; and, as one immigration committee put it,
"physically, the gypsy is a very mixed people." Most importantly, in
cases researched for this study, nearly all denied being "gypsies."
To overcome this obstacle, immigration inspectors identified gypsies by way of
life rather than by phenotype, language, religion, origin, or nationality. This
practice conflated ethnic Romani with other itinerant groups, placing them all
under the appellation "gypsy." Consequently, the state, along with
the cultural and knowledge industries, redefined gypsy identity by extending the
boundaries of the group's membership.
In the absence of specific legislation prohibiting gypsy
immigration, officials at all levels of the Immigration Service utilized
racially nonspecific clauses of immigration policy, particularly the
"likely to become a public charge" (LPC) provision. Its original
purpose was to prevent the immigration of paupers and others who might become
financial burdens on the community. However, the vagueness of the LPC clause
and the discretion afforded to the Immigration Service allowed officials to
debar immigrants for a variety of reasons not otherwise enunciated in the law.
The Immigration Service associated certain behaviors with gypsies and
reinterpreted the LPC clause to classify them as excludable. Immigration and
law enforcement officials suspected that traditional gypsy occupations – horse
trading, metal working, peddling, fortune-telling, among many others – were
merely fronts for criminal activity. Gypsies were bound to become public
charges in some fashion, be it imprisonment or underemployment.
I consider "The Assumption of Identity" a social
and cultural history of the state as much as it is a history of race. I take a
nation-state-building approach to signify the agency involved in a
nation-state's construction. The nation-state's unit of inclusion – the citizen
– is embedded with national expectations and societal values. Immigrants
crossing into the US navigate the legal, social, cultural, racial, and economic
contours of the nation. While citizenship connotes the possibility of
inclusion, it also suggests the prospect of exclusion. If we continue with the
well-worn trope of the "melting pot," recognizing the exclusivity of
citizenship emphasizes the act of selecting ingredients to go into the pot. Immigration
officers chose immigrants that were compatible with the nation and met the
needs of the state.
My "on the ground" approach enables "The
Assumption of Identity" to provide 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 am mostly
concerned with how they affected and shaped the everyday American experience.