Deja Vu and the Gendered Origins of the Practice of Immigration Law, 1907-1940

Posted: 1 Aug 2018

See all articles by Felice Batlan

Felice Batlan

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology

Date Written: July 19, 2018


Donald Trump’s administration has provoked crisis after crisis regarding the United States’ immigration policy, laws, and their enforcement. This has drastically affected millions of immigrants in the U.S. and those hoping to immigrate. Stemming from this, immigration lawyers and immigrant advocacy organizations are challenging such policies and providing an extraordinary amount of direct pro bono legal services to immigrants in need. Yet the history of the practice of immigration law has been largely understudied. This article seeks to address this history by closely examining Chicago’s Immigrants’ Protective League between 1910 and 1940. The League provided free counsel to tens of thousands of poor immigrants facing a multitude of immigration-related legal issues during a time when Congress passed increasingly strict immigration laws often spawned by xenophobia and racism. The League, always headed by women social workers, created a robust model of immigration advocacy. Overtime, it combined the everyday legal representation of immigrants, the production of social science research and scholarship about immigration and immigrants, the lobbying of immigration officials and the federal government for better and less restrictive immigration laws, and the provision of a variety of social services to immigrants. It also did so during an era when only a handful of women were professionally trained lawyers. A close and thick reading of the League’s archival documents, manifests how the events of Trump’s immigration policies have a long and painful history. U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have consistently been cruel, inhumane, arbitrary, and capricious. Told from the ground up and focusing upon the day-to-day problems that immigrants brought to the League, one dramatically sees how immigration laws and practices were (and still are) like quicksand – changing and unstable— thwarting the legitimate expectations of migrants, at times, leaving people in a legal limbo, and at other times, destroying lives. The League, in response, participated in creating what would become the practice of immigration law. In doing so, it continually engaged in legal improvisation as it quickly responded to changing laws, rules, policies, and the needs of those trying to immigrate.

Keywords: immigration, legal practice, gender, women, legal history, public interest

Suggested Citation

Batlan, Felice, Deja Vu and the Gendered Origins of the Practice of Immigration Law, 1907-1940 (July 19, 2018). Available at SSRN:

Felice Batlan (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law - Illinois Institute of Technology ( email )

565 W. Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States

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