Immigration and America's Golden Door
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Reviews in American History 32.1 (2004) 68-75



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Immigration and America's Golden Door

Erika Lee


Roger Daniels. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. 352 pp. Notes and index. $30.00.

In Guarding the Golden Door, historian Roger Daniels begins with an emphatic call for historians to pay attention to immigration and immigration policy. The migration of foreign peoples to the United States has been one of the most significant transformative processes in American history. Foreign immigration was vital to the successful establishment of the American colonies, and Daniels notes that every president from George Washington to John Tyler understood that continued immigration was "vital for the health of the nation" (p. 6). Between 1860 and 1920, about one in seven Americans was foreign-born. In 1890 and again in 1910, 14.7 percent of the total population in the United States was foreign-born, a rate that has still not been surpassed. The American response to immigration, including the contemporary ambivalent, "dualistic" attitudes that Americans have developed toward immigration—celebrating the nation's immigrant heritage while "rejecting much of its immigrant present"—has been an equally significant force in American history (p. 8). American nativisms, what Daniels broadly defines as general opposition to immigration or the amount of immigration, have inspired the passage of new laws, contributed to the development of the American state, and have affected both foreign and domestic relations. Despite the continuity of immigration in American history and its subsequent effects on every sector of American life, Daniels charges that the space allotted to the topics of immigration and immigration policy is "both cursory and spasmodic" in most textbooks (p. 6).

Guarding the Golden Door is both an introductory survey of immigration policy and a masterful assessment of the state of the field by one of its founders. Daniels notes that he has been engaged in the writing of this book for nearly two decades (p. ix). And indeed, any scholar writing on immigration law has owed a debt to Daniels for quite some time for his path-breaking and prodigious research and writing in immigration generally and in Asian American history more specifically. His first book, The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion [End Page 68] (1962) remains the only monograph on the subject. His numerous books on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War Two, which include Concentration Camps, USA: Japanese Americans and World War Two (1971), as well as his related political work were an integral part of the Japanese American redress movement during the 1980s.

In Guarding the Golden Door, Daniels chronicles the history of American immigration policy in a way that provides a much-needed perspective on both the continuities and changes in the United States' efforts to regulate immigration. This is also a very timely book. Most historical scholarship on immigration law focuses on a specific set of laws or time frame, while neglecting the long durée that Daniels provides. Although Daniels does not offer a clear argument in every chapter, his perspective on American immigration policy is evident: the United States has passed inconsistent, illogical immigration laws, often rooted in racism and ethnocentrism; these laws have been cumbersome and sometimes impossible to enforce; and they have resulted in a range of unforeseen consequences. Daniels also describes American opposition to immigration in terms of continuity. The charges that immigrants have bad habits, are clannish, and are going to take over the United States are "typical" complaints "irrespective of time and place," Daniels argues. "The targets have changed, but the complaints remain largely the same. Their gravamen is simply this: they are not like us" (p. 8).

Guarding the Golden Door is organized into two large sections. Part One, "The Golden Door Closes and Opens, 1882-1965" explains the beginning of immigration restriction in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act and describes the expansion of immigration restriction to other Asian immigrants and southern and eastern Europeans through...


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