Philip D.  Erenrich  ABD  email student

Field of Study
Modern American History, Immigration

Andrew W. Cohen

Dissertation Title
The Assumption of Identity: The Exclusion and Deportation of 'Gypsy' Immigrants from the US, 1891-1932

Dissertation Description

"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.

Methodology and Approach

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.