The Island of Duty
New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 24, pp. 563-600, 1998
Posted: 7 Aug 2000
Before the 1890s, the states and the federal government shared the responsibility for regulating immigration to the United States. With the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, the federal government assumed the exclusive power to control immigration by applying two contradictory laws which excluded immigrants either who seemed incapable of working or who seemed as if they had already secured work before migrating. In practice, immigration inspectors interpreted these laws by deploying an elaborate inspection apparatus that rewarded immigrants who seemed defenseless and duty-minded and thwarted immigrants who asserted themselves or who hired assertive lawyers to assist them.
When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, he aimed to reform Ellis Island and appointed officials who emphasized that the process of racial assimilation could be begun there. The practice of immigration inspection on Ellis Island was well-suited to the Rooseveltian project of producing an ideal American citizenry, in part because legal practice identified the figure of the assertive immigrant as well as the immigrants attorney as a disruptive presence in the machinery of assimilation. Relying on cultural practice theory, the article thus critically examines the history of American citizenship by situating immigrants in an emerging ideological opposition between adversarial legal representation and administrative authority at the turn of the twentieth century.
JEL Classification: K4, N3
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation