Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seeing the Neighbor: Immigration, Race, and the Good Samaritan

note: this is a presentation I am working on; all comments would be much appreciated. I've also added Roman numerals to help you navigate through this longer piece:
I. Focuses on Ellis Island and the history of excluding immigrants by race;
II. connects the exclusionary practices ("optics") of Ellis Island to earlier slave auctions and to present day practices of racial profiling.
III. Looks at the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), alluding at points to the discussion in Part I
IV. Examines more closely how the story of the Good Samaritan challenges the "invulnerable seeing" discussed in Part I
V. Concludes by looking briefly at how working with refugees--work that I do--fits within this discussion.


On January 1st, 1892, Ellis Island officially opened. In the following three decades, over 70% of immigrants to the U.S. would be processed there. The decades preceding and following this moment were marked not by an open, receptive embrace of the “tired, poor, huddled masses.” Instead, these decades were filled with an increased focus on immigration, race, and citizenship, and with the refinement of techniques for excluding those deemed unworthy to belong.

In 1870, twenty-two years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed the naturalization act. Previously, one could not become a “naturalized” citizen--meaning a citizen of the U.S.A. despite being born in another country--unless one were a free white person. The act in 1870 did not erase the qualification of being white but was expanded to include immigrants from Africa. The act was intended to complete what began with the 14th amendment: to grant citizenship rights to those who had been enslaved. However, by not erasing the racial component of citizenship but expanding it, Congress tried to answer the problem of slavery while still continuing racist policies of exclusion. By specifying that free whites and persons of African descent could become citizens, the 1870 Act solidified the link between race and citizenship, for it excluded a growing immigrant population, the Chinese. In 1875, five years after the 1870 Naturalization Act and 20 years before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress passed the Page Act. This act, as well as some legislation following it, focused on “oriental women,” women who disrupted the white social body by supposedly carrying diseases and working in the U.S. as prostitutes. These acts began a more intensified classification of “undesirable immigrants” by focusing on nations and races; the Page Act explicitly declared its focus on “subjects of China, Japan, or any Oriental country.” In 1882, ten years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed two acts that helped further expand the notion of undesirable immigrants: it passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which completed what began 1870--the exclusion of Chinese immigrants and the denial of American citizenship to Chinese persons. The other immigration act in 1882 barred “lunatics, idiots, and persons liable to become public charges,” meaning those it deemed unemployable, from entering the States. In1891, one year before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress modified this act by adding to the list polygamists and those carrying contagious diseases.

The focus on health, as should seem obvious from preceding summary, is not just an isolated health issue but one that is intertwined with issues of race, national identity, gender, and the social body. Immigrants were consistently seen as threatening to contaminate, whether by altering the “racial” identity of the American public or corrupting “American” morals and political ideals. In 1891, immigrants became marked as the corrupters in a different sense: they were a threat to the physical health of the American social body. The operations at Ellis Island continued to heighten these associations of race, class, and disease.