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  • In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy
  • Kritika Agarwal (bio)
In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy, by Anna Pegler-Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Xx + 319 pp. $26.95 paper. ISBN 978-0-5202-5298-1.

Anna Pegler-Gordon's In Sight of America: Photography and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy is an astute study of the role photography and the development of photographic identity documentation played in the regulation of immigrants and the development of U.S. immigration policy between 1875 and 1930. Pegler-Gordon argues that immigration photography was central to state-based practices of racial formation and that it helped create a racialized system of immigration enforcement not only by representing race visually but also by selecting which immigrant groups required representation (10).

This focus on photography and the use of photographic identity documentation adds an interesting frame of analysis to existing knowledge about immigration inspection and enforcement on the U.S. West Coast and Angel Island, along with Ellis Island and the U.S./Mexico border. Photographic identity documentation was first introduced with the passage of the Page Act (1875), which prohibited the entry of prostitutes and required all Chinese women seeking entry to the United States to carry photographic identity documentation. With the subsequent expansion [End Page 134] of Chinese exclusion laws, photographic documentation requirements were gradually extended to all Chinese immigrants living within the United States. In fact, photographic identity requirements were almost exclusively applied to Chinese immigrants until passport controls were introduced for immigrants entering the United States at the U.S./Mexico border in 1917. As Pegler-Gordon notes, this selective visual regulation was the result of widespread beliefs among restrictionists and nativists that most Chinese immigrants entered the United States illegally and that individual Chinese people could not be distinguished easily because they all looked alike. Under this logic, photographic identity documentation was seen as the only effective means of separating documented, or legal, Chinese immigrants from those who were undocumented, or illegal.

This selective visual representation and regulation, according to Pegler-Gordon, marked Chinese immigrants as being permanently inassimilable and as being outside the boundaries of national belonging. Photographic identification, however, was heavily contested by immigrants and, as Pegler-Gordon notes, "was a dialectical process of image making that involved restrictionists and reformers, immigration officials, and, more important, immigrants themselves" (12). The introduction of widespread requirements for identity documentation for Chinese immigrants with the passage of the Geary Act (1892) and the organized resistance that followed have been fairly well documented by several historians, including Erika Lee, Lucy Salyer, and Jean Pfalezer. Pegler-Gordon's research offers the clearest intervention in this body of work through her emphasis on visual culture and her meticulous documentation of how Chinese immigrants sought to control their self-representation in the photographs they attached to identity papers. She notes how Chinese immigrants subverted the exclusion enforcement regime by manipulating images and creating fake documents to enable paper relationships.

While European immigrants were not required to obtain photographic identity documentation until the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, they still had to undergo visual medical inspection at Ellis Island and were often photographed by tourists, journalists, and professional photographers alike as they made their way through the Great Hall. Again, while histories of visual medical inspection at Ellis Island and Angel Island have been fairly well documented in the works of Alan Kraut and Nayan Shah, Pegler-Gordon offers a new perspective on how Ellis Island itself became an "observation station" and a photo studio for those who came to enjoy the "theater of Ellis Island" (111). Focusing specifically on the photographic works of Augustus Sherman and Lewis Hine, Pegler-Gordon demonstrates how immigration photography often fed into the complex discourses surrounding the desirability of European immigration into the United States. She notes, however, [End Page 135] that while European immigrants who passed through Ellis Island had less control over their presentation in the pictures that tourists or photographers took of them, they were also left largely unmarked by state practices of visual regulation until the...


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