Classifying Black Migration: Race, Nationality, and the Early Twentieth Century U.S. Immigration Bureaucracy

Emily Pope-Obeda, Lehigh University

Throughout the early 20th century, immigrants designated as black (or in the language of the early immigration service as “African, black”) were deported at disproportionately high rates. At the same time, the debates over quota restrictions throughout the 1910s and 1920s were marked by concerns that the new laws were not doing enough to prevent Afro-Caribbean migration. Since at least the early twentieth century, immigration control has been used to regulate and discipline black bodies at both the borders and within the interior of the nation. And yet, there has not been sufficient attention to how official taxonomies of race and nationality have intersected in the policing of black migrants. This paper will explore how the early federal immigration bureaucracy classified black immigrants and what the limited and inadequate statistical data can reveal about the nature of anti-black racial policing through immigration control. I will discuss both the existing data on black immigrants deemed inadmissible or deportable by the state as well as the language used by the Immigration Service in case files, correspondence, and official reports to describe these migrants. As 1930s sociologist Ira De Augustine Reid explained of the classification “African, Black,” this “cover-all term” acted “to cloak with racial identification” people from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom would not have identified with this racial designation prior to their entry in the United States. Indeed, the cases I examine range from Canada to the British West Indies to Venezuela to Wales. Alongside government documents, I will consider newspaper coverage and other writings on black migrants of the era, highlighting the racial categorization and rhetoric used to distinguish immigrants of African descent from the rest of the foreign-born population of the country.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 117. Dubious Data: The Politics and Myth of Border and Migrant Policing