Thursday Lecture Series

Reliance on Unwanted Immigrants: Foreign Contract Labor as a Problem in American History

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

This presentation is taken from my current book project, “The Business of the Nation: Foreign Contract Labor and the Rise of American Immigration Control.” The project examines the transnational business of importing Asian, Canadian, European, and Mexican contract laborers to the United States and the evolution of federal alien contract labor law designed to restrict this form of immigration during the long nineteenth century. Since the early nineteenth century, Americans opposed the immigration of poor foreign workers who would degrade the dignity of labor and lower American wage standards. The opposition to immigrant labor became especially strong in the case of contract workers. In 1885, American workers’ antipathy to “alien contract labor” resulted in the passage of the federal Foran Act, which banned the landing of foreign contract workers. This project examines how hostility toward contract labor migration influenced American immigration law and how the alien contract labor law in turn affected immigrant workers.

The presentation first traces the intellectual and legal origins of alien contract labor law by surveying the antebellum roots of opposition to imported labor in the United States. While labor radicalism in the late nineteenth century played a crucial role in the introduction of the Foran Act, the federal law was built upon earlier discourses on servile labor and the economic impact on Americans of immigration of certain kinds. In particular, I identify the following four issues in antebellum America as the ideological and legal origins of the alien contract labor law: 1) Free Soilism, 2) “pauper labor” discourse, 3) assisted emigration, and 4) coolieism.

The presentation then moves on to examining the enforcement of the alien contract labor law. By analyzing repeated failures to implement the law due to demands for cheap labor, I suggest that alien contract labor law, which affected an enormous range of immigrants of diverse nationalities, was decisive in establishing the fundamental divide in American history between nativism and the nation’s reliance on immigrant labor, a reality that still shapes America today.