Reviewed by Lee Movius~

Kunal Parker’s Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600-2000 is an unusual and compelling historical study, well worth the time of anyone interested in past or present law-based discrimination in the United States. The key to understanding why is in the title’s intentionally intriguing and ambiguous opening, “Making Foreigners.” By this phrase, Parker means much more than deportation (though it encompasses that). Rather, he means the political strategies embodied in federal, state and local law (as opposed to mere social custom) that have intentionally excluded persons physically present in America, whether immigrants or native-born, from the full rights, privileges and protections of citizenship. These strategies over the past 400 years (including colonial times) took many forms, varied according to the group targeted, changed over time, and in some respects continue to this day.

Parker, a legal scholar at the University of Miami Law School, is himself a naturalized United States citizen. He explains in the book’s preface that his “own particular experience of the powerless of the immigrant seeking admission” to the United States led him “to wonder exactly what it is about an individual’s coming from elsewhere that makes it possible to deny his or her claims on the community.” When he turned to the historical record for an answer, however, he discovered that “the experience of foreignness — and of the powerlessness that comes with it — has never been unique to those coming from outside the United States.” Rather, over the centuries, Americans have intentionally “treated as foreigners not only immigrants from outside the country, but also Native Americans, blacks, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, women, the poor, and political minorities.” He concludes that “designation as a foreigner is not a function of coming from the territorial outside…[but] is a political strategy that has been used inside and outside the country and to multiple ends.” This leads to a key tenet of his study: that concepts of citizenship, nationality and foreignness that are geographically reliant in their focus do not capture the actual pattern and practice of making whole groups of insiders into outsiders while inside the country.

Parker believes that traditional studies of immigration and citizenship law have (often unintentionally) supported two popular views of the development of the United States that contain much truth but are roseate and one-sided. One such view finds the country’s openness to immigration at the core of the country’s historical experience. Here, the brute numbers of immigration — the United States received three-fifths of the world’s immigrants from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century and remained the world’s largest immigrant-receiving country throughout the twentieth — have obscured the various ways that immigration laws restricted immigration and “alienage” laws discriminated against the legally admitted. Another such view emphasizes the gradual expansion of full citizenship from an initial base of propertied white males to include the property-less, the indigent, women and racial minorities. Here, these groups tend to be seen as “citizens-in-waiting” pending inclusive historical change rather than as being actively rendered foreign during their time of exclusion.

Parker’s book is concise (approximately 250 pages) despite its historical breadth. An introductory chapter explains the study’s approach and tells the reader what to expect. The following three chapters take us to the Civil War. A chapter examines British North America, including (i) the many legal disabilities related to property, voting, residence and movement suffered by the majority of white British subjects and (ii) the manipulation of British subjecthood to attract wealthy European Protestant settlers while rendering Native Americans and Black foreigners (in Parker’s sense of the word). The following chapter addresses the early decades of the American Republic, including (i) contradictions of concepts of citizenship, (ii) the constitutional division of authority between the federal and state governments on matters of citizenship, and (iii) the emergence of state-level territorial restrictions to exclude and remove members of an increasing free black population. The final pre-Civil War chapter focuses on the antebellum period, contrasting the development of nearly universal white male suffrage with the slotting of the majority of the resident population into second-class citizenship (women, the poor and most free blacks), non-citizenship (Native Americans and certain free blacks) or a slave status considered antithetical to citizenship or then-contemporary non-citizenship in any form. In this chapter, considerable attention is paid to the explosion of territorial restrictions on the movement and residence of free backs and to attempts to remove Native Americans and free blacks from the country.

The final four chapters take us from the post-Civil War to the present. One chapter focuses on the late nineteenth century. Of particular importance were two contrasting trends. The first was the Fourteenth Amendment’s’ broadening of formal (although often not substantive) citizenship status to blacks. The second was the emergence of a new federal immigration order that supplanted state control and importantly, was grounded in a new, sovereignty-based constitutional theory of plenary (full) power that immunized the government’s actions with respect to immigrants from substantive constitutional review. Also examined are the federal government’s attempts to “manage” the “problem” of Chinese immigration by excluding and deporting on grounds of race and national origin.

The final chapters address more recent and familiar times — the period from 1900 to World War II and then the second half of the twentieth century, with their trends of the ebb and flow of restrictive immigration and deportation practices and the elimination of most forms of second-class citizenship. The book closes with reflections on how joining the histories of immigrants with those of Native Americans, blacks, women, the poor, Asian Americans and Latino Americans has sparked a rethinking of immigration and citizenship history.

These final chapters emphasize what is perhaps the main historical development examined by the book: the emergence of the current legal gulf between citizen and non-citizen. For most Americans, citizenship is now legally enriched and without threat of being “rendered foreign” by governmental action. In contrast, and with the sanction of constitutional law, the federal government can exclude, deport, and discriminate against immigrants on grounds that would be constitutionally impermissible if used against its citizens. Paradoxically, it is Parker’s insistence on examining four hundred years of immigration and citizenship law using an analysis that doesn’t isolate “citizen” from “immigrant” or “insider” from “outsider” that enables him to reveal so convincingly the origins and development of this current gulf.

Making Foreigners is a serious historical study but is not written exclusively for the specialist. It reads easily, while avoiding the breeziness and jargon of popular history, has intellectual rigor, and has been meticulously researched. It is intentionally (and mercifully) almost free of footnotes but in compensation, closes with an extensive bibliographical essay for those wishing to pursue particular matters in more depth. I found Making Foreigners compelling and strongly recommend it.