Immigration is one of the most frequently discussed and multivalent concepts in scholarship on the US experience. A subcategory within studies of “migration,” “immigration” refers in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) to the activity of “enter[ing] and settl[ing] in a region or country to which one is not native.” The “Usage Note” at “migrate” adds, “Migrate, which is used of people or animals, sometimes implies a lack of permanent settlement, especially as a result of seasonal or periodic movement. Emigrate and immigrate are used only of people and imply a permanent move, generally across a political boundary.” As this definition indicates, many kinds of relocation may be described in everyday vernacular as “immigration.” In partial contrast, academic studies of immigration generally focus on geographic relocations across political boundaries, usually of nation-states. These relocations are often imagined as permanent, thus differentiating immigrants from groups such as temporary migrant laborers, tourists, business visitors, and international students. The “Note” at “migrate” confirms this usage: “Emigrate describes the move relative to the point of departure…. By contrast, immigrate describes the move relative to the destination: The promise of prosperity in the United States encouraged many people to immigrate.”

Definitions such as this one tend to make nation-states seem natural, to overstate the extent to which both emigration and immigration involve individual choice, and to make mobile people visible primarily as problems for the state to manage. In contrast, the treatment of immigration in much recent work in American studies and cultural studies focuses on historicizing the construction of nation-states and the peoples who populate them. It was only in the late nineteenth century that nation-states began to monopolize control over migration across international borders and to justify such controls as a matter of national sovereignty. During the second half of the nineteenth century, as waves of immigrants arrived from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the United States nationalized its immigration policies and implemented them in increasingly exclusionary ways. Claims that immigration control involved national sovereignty were reinforced in the 1880s and 1890s through efforts to exclude Chinese immigrants on racial grounds. A national sovereignty framework meant that Congress’s powers over immigration were not constrained by the Constitution and legitimized reduced due process protections and explicitly discriminatory practices including race-based exclusion (Erika Lee 2007). In the 1890s, the United States also acquired significant overseas territories, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawai‘i, and Guam. In this expanding imperial context, immigration control gained significance as an expression of and tool for constituting an explicitly racialized national sovereignty.

The link between immigration control and national sovereignty both reinforced and was aided by the rise of a centralized state bureaucracy. Given the filtering demands of immigration policy, officials needed ways to establish clearly who belonged to the nation-state. This need, in turn, required the development of identity documents and systems of verification such as the passport, which became widely used after World War I (Torpey 2000). These documentation practices tied individuals to bureaucratic identities in ways that allowed for their monitoring and surveillance. Such practices did not map identities that people already had; rather, they were tools to divide up and classify populations in relation to state-making projects at local, national, and imperial levels. They depended on, deployed, and refined forms of racial, colonial, and sexual knowledge about bodies, and they relied on technologies such as photography and fingerprinting that developed in the context of empire, the transformation of policing, and the rise of human sciences (Wiegman 1997). Contemporary uses of biometric technologies have extended this history in new ways (Noiriel 1991).

Through these processes, “the immigrant” became defined as a person who crosses a nation-state boundary and takes on the legal status of “alien,” with associated regimes of identification, surveillance, rights, and constraints. The figure of the “illegal immigrant” is produced through similar processes. Popularly treated as a sociological category, the “illegal” or undocumented immigrant actually refers not to any particular type of person but to the shifting ways in which the nation-state produces registers of legitimate and illegitimate entrants. While undocumented immigrants are denied many fundamental rights, their labor is often welcomed, even demanded. Furthermore, the construction of certain migrants as undocumented connects to histories of inequality between the United States and other nation-states within an imperial global order. For example, many scholars suggest that Mexicans have become the paradigmatic undocumented immigrants through historical, legal, political, and economic processes that derive from enduring neocolonial relationships between the United States and Mexico (Nevins 2002; M. Ngai 2004). Efforts to police undocumented immigrants are thoroughly implicated in the production of the nation-state in a manner that emphasizes its territorial borders. Since undocumented immigrants live inside the national territory, however, borders within the nation-state have also proliferated in a manner that often racializes Latin Americans, Asian Americans, and Middle Easterners as “foreigners” (while equating citizenship with whiteness).

Understanding that immigration control “illegalizes” particular migrants in an act of state power requires revising the common conception of immigration as a simple matter of individuals deciding to relocate permanently to another nation-state. This conception has been elaborated through theories of immigration as a consequence of push/pull forces or cost/benefit economic decision-making. These theories suggest, in line with the American Heritage Dictionary, that immigration is primarily driven by people making rational decisions to migrate due to poor conditions at home (poverty, repression, violence) and the promise of a better life elsewhere (wealth, freedom, peace). Other theories, in contrast, offer richer and more accurate understandings of the dynamics of immigration by exploring how histories of imperialism, invasion, investment, trade, and political influence create what Saskia Sassen (1992) theorizes as bridges linking regions within nation-states. While individuals certainly make choices, their choices are constrained and enabled by the global, national, and local histories that Sassen describes. And they are also influenced by social networks including family, friends, and community members and by intermediaries such as labor recruiters, attorneys, and smugglers.

Bridges for migration may also be created through more symbolic means, including narratives and images of immigration and immigrants (Chavez 2008). Common representations characterize the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” a “melting pot,” or a “multicultural mosaic.” Such images naturalize histories of genocide, slavery, racialized patriarchy, and economic exploitation as necessary moments of national consolidation, thus contributing to a culture that normalizes and privileges white, male, middle-class, and heterosexual statuses. Images produce these normalizing effects in part by drawing on forms of expertise created and inhabited by sociologists, demographers, economists, policymakers, and health professionals. Such expertise never involves simply collecting and analyzing facts that already exist; rather, there is an ongoing and reciprocal relationship between governance and knowledge production. These types of expertise function in a complex relationship to more critical modes of scholarship. For instance, in the early twentieth century, Robert Park (1950) and the “Chicago school” social scientists effectively established the sociological study of immigration. Many of Park’s concepts—such as the four-stage assimilation cycle of competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation—remain with us today. Park’s scholarship contested the racist orthodoxy of his day but ultimately preserved whiteness and masculinity as unmarked national norms into which migrants were expected to assimilate and through which they were governed (Yu 2001).

Nonetheless, the meanings of images, representations, and forms of knowledge are always open to revision—as shown by immigrants and allies who have organized to counter negative imagery, to resist state practices of criminalization and marginalization, and to propose new forms of living, working, and belonging (Buff 2008; Das Gupta 2006; Louie 2001). Contemporary activism focuses on new political and laboring subjects who often live transnational lives, may be undocumented, and negotiate multiple forms of exploitation. Immigrant activism builds on and transforms historic struggles for civil, labor, feminist, queer, and anticolonial rights, offering new organizing strategies through social media and cross-border linkages and revitalizing challenges to exclusionary models of citizenship and the nation-state. At the same time, since immigrant activism has historically served to inculcate newcomers into normative forms of belonging, contemporary organizing must continually negotiate the tension between normalization and resistance.

With the contemporary turn in American studies, cultural studies, and immigrant activisms toward models of transnationalism, globalization, diaspora, and borderlands that map more varied trajectories of migration, scholars have begun to rethink many of the foundational concepts of immigration scholarship, including static or place-bound ideas of culture, community, nation, race, gender, identity, and settlement (Gutiérrez and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2008). Much of this rethinking challenges concepts that are framed by trajectories of evolutionary development within the boundaries of the nation-state. Instead, newer work attends to contradiction, relationality, and back-and-forth dynamics. It strives to undo conceptual binaries, to challenge evolutionary narratives, to theorize liminal positions, and to resituate borders as contact zones. These studies rethink immigrant agency and resistance by connecting material conditions to subject-formation processes while emphasizing multiple, interlocking inequalities at different scales (Segura and Zavella 2007; Zavella 2011).

Recent scholarship focused on sexuality can usefully illustrate these multidisciplinary efforts to reconceptualize the study of immigration. Though often overlooked or naturalized in immigration scholarship, sexuality is directly implicated in racial, gender, class, cultural, and imperial inequalities. It thoroughly structures and is restructured by immigration, not merely at the level of metaphor and symbol but also materially. For example, when the United States established military bases and sent troops to Asia for “rest and recreation” in the latter half of the twentieth century, it also generated bridges for immigration to the United States shaped by interlocking sexual, racial, gender, and economic inequalities within a (neo)colonial framework. More generally, links between capitalism and sexual identities, ideologies, imaginaries, and practices continue to influence immigration movements (Brennan 2004). Contemporary neoliberalism, which relies on and naturalizes racialized, patriarchal heterosexuality as a tool of governance (particularly through “family values” discourses and political projects), simultaneously extends this complex history and contributes to the erasure of sexuality within mainstream thinking about immigration.

While histories of (neo)colonialism, economic inequality, racism, and (hetero)sexism on a global scale materially shape immigration, US laws and policies remain largely unresponsive to these complexities. Instead, they respond within a nationalist framework that privileges normative heterosexuality channeled into marriage and family. The heterosexual family has long served as a model for nation making that inscribes and naturalizes important hierarchies, including a patriarchal order that constructs women’s sexualities as the property of males and a racial and cultural order that valorizes whiteness (McClintock 1993). The heterosexual family and its associated hierarchies provide the abstract model, concrete mechanism, and means for assessing and generating discourses about various social processes affecting immigrants (Berlant 1997). Take the example of racial and ethnic “mixing,” which has been a central concern in the governance and study of immigration. “Mixing” has generated two of the major discourses that have structured popular and academic thinking about immigration—the color line and the melting pot—and the heterosexual family has been central to each.

In regard to the color line, antimiscegenation laws, which were grounded in the history of slavery, were in many cases revived or extended to prevent single immigrant men from Asia, Africa, and Latin America from becoming sexually involved with native-born white women. Single immigrant women were also figured as potentially threatening—most vividly in nineteenth-century claims that Chinese women who engaged in sex work were corrupting white men and boys, stripping them of their money, and infecting them with deadly diseases. Patriarchal marriage within the boundaries of one’s “race” and “ethnic group” was deemed a good solution to all manner of potential social disorders associated with immigrant sexuality—including challenges to the color line. Yet when sexuality was channeled into marriage within racialized immigrant groups, the resulting childbearing often became constructed as a threat to the color line in a different way. Immigrants have regularly been accused of deliberately attempting to “(re)colonize” parts of the United States through birthing children who were legal citizens but were considered racially and culturally “unassimilable.” The accusations have prompted cycles of exclusionary and eugenic measures in areas including health care, education, social welfare, immigration and citizenship law, and border management.

At the same time, the heterosexual family has been viewed as a mechanism to assimilate immigrants into “American” culture and citizenship; in this respect, it has also been the focus of “melting pot” discourses, desires, strategies, systems of governance, and modes of representation, including versions of assimilation, pluralism, Americanization, and multiculturalism. For example, interracial and interethnic marriage has regularly been characterized as the most effective mechanism to erase the color line and has been studied accordingly (Yu 2001). Similarly, the promotion of companionate marriage in both popular discourse and social science research has provided a technology for immigrant assimilation and driven more than a century of public policies and programs.

This history of “mixing” points to a larger issue. Normative heterosexuality has served as the unexamined ground for elaborating many foundational concepts in the study and governance of immigration. The core concept of “assimilation,” for example, came to serve as a model for immigrant life that draws on and recapitulates the norm of heterosexuality as the desired outcome of a developmental process on which racial and national hierarchies depended (Somerville 2000). Generational conflict within heterosexual immigrant families became the model for conceiving and narrating cultural change. “Settlement”—another key concept in mainstream immigration scholarship—similarly hinged on whether immigrants entered into patriarchal marriages. Models of family, culture, community, economic advancement, race, and nation presumed heterosexuality as their actual mechanism and as the normative standard for evaluation. Recent scholarship that centers on sexuality in a manner that recognizes its direct imbrication in racial, gendered, colonial, and class regimes has contributed to rethinking these and other foundational concepts—not only in nation-centered accounts of immigration but also in global, diasporic, and transnational models of migration that implicitly rely on heterosexual logics (Manalansan 2006). This reworking of key concepts is useful for all scholars of immigration, whatever their discipline or approach, since it provides a basis for rethinking the epistemologies, methodologies, and representational forms that govern our collective understanding of the histories and futures of migration within and across national borders.


Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay