National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882. By Deirdre M. Moloney. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. x, 315. $34.95.)


Immigration historians have recently focused attention on those who have been allowed to settle in the United States and those kept out. Deirdre M. Moloney develops this theme as she investigates those who were deported or threatened with deportation. Focusing on the years 1890 to 1930, Moloney argues that even when immigration laws did not overtly discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or religion, their application often disproportionally targeted women, nonwhites, and religious minorities.

Moloney's most compelling chapters explore how 1882 and 1891 immigration laws allowing the exclusion of those engaged in prostitution or polygamy, those “likely to become a public charge,” or those deemed to suffer from certain illnesses discriminated against southern Europeans, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Mexicans. For example, among eastern European Jews, women immigrating alone were often deported on “public charge” grounds despite the high rate of work force participation by this group. Moloney effectively skewers the category of “poor physique,” a “disease” eugenicists invented to deny entry to those deemed undesirable.

Moloney does not simply decry victimization by entrenched American elites, however, as she details how ethnic and religious organizations resisted deportation attempts. On the other hand, sometimes the impetus to deport particular individuals came from disappointed family members or others within their ethnic community. Moloney draws extensively from National Archives files, other government publications, and the ethnic press. She evinces throughout the study a laudable, albeit simplistic, commitment to use historical experience to inform current immigration policy. A useful twenty-page appendix summarizes relevant immigration, naturalization, and deportation laws.

Unfortunately, this book's flaws almost outweigh its virtues. It is repetitious, badly written, poorly organized, frustratingly incomplete in its citations, and replete with minor errors and hyperbole. For example, Moloney misstates the name of Marcus Garvey's organization, gets the colors of his African pride flag wrong, exaggerates the number of years that the US government investigated his activities, and misdates by thirty years the deportation of another Caribbean radical. The author puzzlingly recounts the unsuccessful 1934 and 1940 attempts to deport labor leader Harry Bridges in the chapter before the one devoted to policy changes during the New Deal. This list could go on.

More broadly, Moloney often adopts a reductionist view that attributes policy outcomes to specific intentions even when other explanations are equally plausible. For example, she asserts that the porous border with Mexico in the 1920s resulted from an assumption that Mexicans would be only temporary migrants, valued as low-wage agricultural labor. Fair enough, but patrolling a land border posed more logistical obstacles than monitoring ocean ports—an explanation left unexplored. Moloney repeatedly overstates claims that she breaks new scholarly ground; these assertions rankle most when case studies rely on secondary sources. Although her focus is deportation, much of her concluding chapter on recent years is on harassment of immigrants rather than their expulsion, and she generally fails to differentiate between the treatment of legal and undocumented immigrants.