Sentiment and the Restrictionist State: Evidence from the British Caribbean Experience, ca. 1925

Putnam
2016 Journal of American Ethnic History  
The international mobility control regime consolidated in the decade after World War I made intimate sentiment a systematic concern for states policing borders and rights. New U.S. immigration laws in the 1920s made family reunification one of the few routes through which migrants could enter the United States when their home society's quota was exhausted. (That is, the laws extended to much of the world both the exclusionary stance and the kin-based exceptions pioneered in regard to Asian
more » ... nts a generation before. 1 ) Adjudicating the right to cross borders and work now required state agents to assess intimate bonds and the intentions they fostered: the sentimental as well as documentary dimensions of kinship. The impact of this shift was felt sharply in the British Caribbean, which was placed under quota restriction for the first time in 1924, cutting legal immigration from the islands from over ten thousand to under five hundred per year. For migrants and would-be migrants, family acquired a contradictory relationship to state power. On the one hand, family ties became more important than ever in supporting mobility, providing not only resources and support (as had long been the case) but also--for a select few-formal entitlement to entry. On the other hand, kin practice became a key point of vulnerability for working-class migrants, as the U.S. government placed itself in the position of verifying the highly restricted set of family ties that could justify non-quota entry under the new law. Commonplace Caribbean practices like consensual unions, sibling reliance, and informal fostering created bonds given no protection under U.S. immigration law. Moreover, the new state interest created a new venue for intrafamily dispute. Raising the stakes of family ties, the restrictionist regime offered tempting leverage to those struggling with straying spouses, headstrong offspring, or scofflaw siblings. Men and women alike could and did seek to use this leverage, but it was a blunt instrument, unpredictable and often irreversible. Its power to harm was far more consistent than any power to help. The importance of family to immigration restrictionism has been studied by scholars along three separate axes. Firstly, scholars have noted that fears surrounding sexual coupling drove the eugenicist case for restriction, centered on the supposed heritability of "feeblemindedness" and "criminality," the demographic consequences of differential fertility, and the "social traits of the hybrid" who resulted from "race crossing." 2 Secondly, scholars have called attention to the ways the immigration apparatus measured would-be migrants against middle-class, patriarchal, heterosexual norms and barred or expelled those found lacking. 3 Thirdly, scholars have analyzed the role of family reunification policy in shaping both opportunities for inclusion and patterns of exclusion. 4 A different dimension of state enmeshment with intimate life--related to all of the preceding, but distinct from them--comes to the fore in documents generated by entry officials and consuls abroad as the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act came into operation. Written into the new regulatory instruments were myriad matters for which border-crossers' sentiments, and not
doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.35.2.0005 fatcat:ujxsdtvqbzcylfqwphxoku7lme