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Gender in Ellis Island Era Immigration

"LPC": Engendering Exclusion

Between 1882 and 1924, frequent revisions to American immigration law steadily expanded the categories of exclusion that could be invoked by border agents to deny newly arrived immigrants entry into the country. Most of those grounds for deportation were, at least on paper, gender-neutral. (The one gender-specific exception was the 1903 law that decreed that "the importation into the United States of any woman or girl for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden.")22 Otherwise, the immigration law did not explicitly discriminate on the basis of sex; men and women alike could be barred from the United States for carrying diseases, holding radical political beliefs, suffering a disability, or falling into any of the dozens of other classes of excluded persons.

Still, in practice, the enforcement of restrictive immigration statutes impacted men and women in different ways. One statute in particular—the provision, first enacted in 1891, that barred from entry any person officials deemed "likely to become a public charge"—placed a disproportionately heavy burden on female immigrants.

The law was intended to prevent destitute foreigners from immigrating to the United States solely for the purpose of going on welfare. "Likely to become a public charge"—or "LPC," to borrow the abbreviated annotation used by border agents—differed from other categories of exclusion in that it required federal officials to assess each individual immigrant's economic self-sufficiency in not only in the present, but also in the future. "Likely to become..." was a strange standard for judgment and one not used elsewhere in immigration law. (Immigration agents were required to inspect immigrants for tuberculosis, for example, but no one would have tried to exclude individuals on the basis that they were likely to become tubercular in the future.) The odd "LPC" standard required immigration officers to decide—often with a great deal of individual discretion—which immigrants were likely to be able to support themselves if allowed to enter the United States, and which were likely to become paupers. In practice, those decisions were heavily gendered. The dreaded initials "LPC," scribbled onto the paperwork of would-be immigrants deported from Ellis Island, spelled the end of the American Dream for thousands of women who were sent back to their homelands without ever being allowed to set foot on the American mainland.

"LPC" placed an unequal burden on women because the officials charged with enforcing the provision operated under the strong presumption that men could support themselves and their families through wage labor, but that women likely could not. Therefore, women who arrived at Ellis Island attached to men—that is, as dependent wives or daughters—were likely to gain admittance, while those who arrived without a man were likely to be sent back home. As historian Martha Gardner has written, "LPC stigmatized women's work outside the home by dismissing the ability of single women, divorced women, or widows to support themselves and their families. Poverty, in essence, was a gendered disease."23 Even women who had supported themselves in their homelands through skilled, paid labor—for example, as seamstresses—were frequently classed as "LPC" and sent packing. By the 1920s, a single woman hoping to pass through Ellis Island without being branded "LPC" had to produce an affidavit of support from a male relative residing in the United States. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, any woman who lacked the financial support of a man was presumed to be "LPC."

Marriage and Expatriation

In 1907, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, a law that stripped native-born women of their American citizenship if they chose to marry a foreign national. (American men who married foreign women, by contrast, still retained their U.S. citizenship.) The intent of the law was ostensibly to avoid creating legally awkward dual-citizenship families, but its real purpose may have been simply to dissuade American women from marrying foreigners or immigrants. (In 1912, Congressman N.E. Kendall brusquely rebuffed a complaint from women harmed by the law, saying "we do not want our girls to marry foreigners."24) Another intent of the law, which passed at a time of rising nativist sentiment in the United States, may have been to discourage, in a convoluted way, the immigration of foreign-born men by making it more difficult for them to find wives once they settled in America.

Whatever the motivations for the Expatriation Act may have been (and we don't really know for certain because the historical record on the law's origin is quite sparse), the act's effects were profound for the women impacted by it. In some cases, women stripped of their American nationality were not granted citizenship by their husbands' home countries, making them effectively citizens of nowhere—legal non-persons. In other cases, American-born women who married citizens of the "Asiatic Barred Zone" could find themselves suddenly ineligible for entry into their own country of birth.

Historian Ann Marie Nicolosi uncovered the story of a woman identified in historical documents only as "R.W.Y.," a white American citizen "of old New England stock" living in Hawaii.25 In 1924, R.W.Y. fell in love with and married a brilliant physician, a blood specialist with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University who was called "one of the most capable doctors we have" by Hawaii's delegate to Congress. The only problem was that the doctor was Korean, which meant—as far as the United States government was concerned—R.W.Y. was now Korean as well. And since Koreans had been categorically barred from entering the United States under the terms of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, R.W.Y. learned that she had lost even the right to visit her old New England home. The intersection of the Expatriation Act and America's racially discriminatory immigration policies created a kind of legal black hole, and poor R.W.Y. got sucked in.

In 1922, Congress passed the Cable Act, which partially repealed the Expatriation Act by allowing any American woman who married an "alien eligible to naturalization" to retain her citizenship as long as she continued to live in the United States. While the new law ameliorated the worst effects of the Expatriation Act for American women who married European men, it did nothing for women in the unhappy predicament of R.W.Y. Since Asians at the time remained ineligible for naturalization, any American woman who married an Asian still forfeited her citizenship. Racial discrimination, in this case, engendered the unequal treatment of even native-born white American women.

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