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Bootlegged Aliens: Immigration Politics on America's Northern Border

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In contemporary discourse, much of the discussion of U.S. border politics focuses on the Southwest. In Bootlegged Aliens, however, Ashley Johnson Bavery considers the North as a borderlands region, demonstrating how this often-overlooked border influenced government policies toward illegal immigration, business and labor union practices around migrant labor, and the experience of being an illegal immigrant in early twentieth-century industrial America. Bavery examines how immigrants, politicians, and employers helped shape national policies toward noncitizen laborers. In the process, she uncovers the northern industrial origins of an exploitative system that emerged on America's border with Canada, whose legacy remains central to debates about America's borders today.

Bavery begins in the 1920s to explore how that decade's immigration restrictions launched an era of policing and profiling that excluded America's foreign born from the benefits of citizenship. On the border between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, this process turned certain Europeans into undocumented immigrants, a group the press and policymakers referred to as bootlegged aliens. Over the next decade, deportation and policing practices stigmatized entire communities of ethnic Europeans regardless of their legal status. Moreover, restrictive laws allowed manufacturers to exploit workers in new ways. By the Great Depression, citizenship had become an invisible boundary that excluded hundreds of thousands of laborers from New Deal entitlements. Accepted wisdom suggests that the 1924 Immigration Act had allowed ethnic Europeans to shed ties to their homelands and assimilate into the "melting pot" of American culture by the 1930s. Bavery challenges this perspective, finding that, instead of forging a common culture with their fellow workers, European immigrants coming through Canada to Detroit faced statewide registration drives, exclusion from key labor unions, and disqualification from the Works Progress Administration, the cornerstone of America's nascent welfare state. In the heart of industrial America, Bootlegged Aliens reveals, citizenship was highly contingent.

ISBN-13: 9780812252439

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press Inc.

Publication Date: 09-25-2020

Pages: 312

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America

Ashley Johnson Bavery is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University.

Read an Excerpt


In May 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told hundreds of Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans seeking asylum in the United States to "enter America in the lawful way and wait your turn." Sessions's assertion that migrants should apply for legal immigration status, a common refrain among nativist policymakers of the 2000s, relies on the idea that their own ancestors passed through inspection lines at Ellis Island before assimilating into the factories and farms of early twentieth-century America. Bootlegged Aliens challenges this narrative by demonstrating that instead of "waiting their turn," thousands of Europeans once crossed the border without legal papers, seeking refuge from anti-Semitism, violence, and poverty.

Bootlegged Aliens explores how immigration quotas of the 1920s launched an era of policing and profiling that categorized certain Europeans as "foreigners" and excluded them from the benefits of citizenship in the decade that followed. On the borderland between Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Canada, defining, policing, and marginalizing these "foreigners" became a profoundly local affair that denied those without citizenship access to jobs, labor unions, and, ultimately, the federal welfare state. Before World War II, grassroots nativist groups, unions, and politicians created policies that curtailed the rights of aliens, a process that occurred both locally and, because of Detroit's location on the international border, transnationally. The employment practices and precedents established in this northern industrial borderland shaped national immigration policies that cast suspicion on European foreigners across America's industrial core. By the outbreak of World War II, concerns about illegal Europeans had waned, but the policing and employment tactics that developed on America's northern border would influence wider policy toward immigrant employment and welfare for decades. Bootlegged Aliens disrupts the narrative set forth by President Donald Trump and his contemporaries that positions Europeans as the legal immigrants of America's past, who disembarked at Ellis Island and proved their worth with hard work in industrial factories. On the contrary, politicians had once cast Russians as anarchists and Italians as gangsters, and they worried that Poles might be bringing crime and disease to America as they crossed the border illegally.

Before immigration quotas, Europeans migrated to the United States with relative ease. For instance, in March 1914, Ukrainian Andrew Boyko stepped off the steamliner Pomonia at Ellis Island and headed for Detroit, a booming industrial center where workers could earn five dollars a day in the automotive industry. After ten years as a lathe hand in Henry Ford's factory, Boyko married a Ukrainian Canadian woman and settled in suburban Garden City, Michigan. Boyko and his wife frequently crossed the international border on a ferry to Windsor, where they visited family in the small border city's Ukrainian community. On his streetcar ride to work, Boyko sometimes witnessed Ku Klux Klan parades and graffiti attacking foreign-born Europeans like himself, but daily nativism did little to deter him from crossing the border, securing a job, or finding housing in America's Motor City. And if Boyko had sustained a workplace injury and lost his job, the city of Detroit's welfare department would have processed his application alongside those of native-born citizens.

The lives of European immigrants changed in 1921 and 1924 when Congress passed immigration quotas limiting the number of Europeans allowed into the United States. Quotas meant new immigrants faced exclusion, policing, and the constant threat of deportation. In 1927, when Filip Kucharski began plans to leave Warsaw, Poland, to join his brother Artur in Detroit, he faced U.S. immigration quotas that barred him from entering the United States at Ellis Island. But hope was not completely lost for Kucharski. In the late 1920s, Canada still encouraged immigration, and Kucharski boarded an ocean liner bound for Montreal and made the journey to Windsor, a Canadian city just opposite the Detroit River to America's Motor City. After a few days in Windsor, Kucharski paid a smuggler to row him across the river, where he joined his brother in a boarding house in Hamtramck, Michigan.

As immigrants without citizenship, the Kucharski brothers experienced levels of exclusion that would have been inconceivable to immigrants like Andrew Boyko just ten years prior. Filip Kucharski, who had no entrance papers, lived in constant fear of deportation and could only find a temporary job shoveling debris and snow for a pittance outside Chrysler Motor Company. Kucharski's brother Artur had legal papers but no citizenship, and when the Ku Klux Klan distributed literature threatening to expose illegal workers at his Chrysler plant, Artur's foreman fired him to avoid an investigation. Without jobs in the first year of the Great Depression, the Kucharski brothers crossed the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, but in Canada, they encountered less work and a local government that had begun using deportation to clear city welfare rolls. Worried they might be picked up by local police or welfare investigators, the Kucharski brothers secured false American citizenship papers from a local counterfeiter and tried to cross the border again. But the U.S. Border Patrol stationed at the bridge noticed their crudely forged papers and sent the brothers to a holding cell where they recounted their saga to an Immigration Service inspector. Despite their pleas and Artur's insistence that he was still a legal immigrant, the inspector issued deportation orders for them both, on the grounds that they were "Likely to Become Public Charges" in the United States. Within a few months, immigration inspectors loaded both brothers onto a deportation train to New York, where they boarded an ocean liner bound for Europe.

Bootlegged Aliens focuses on the Detroit-Windsor borderland to uncover a local and transnational history of how unions, politicians, and law enforcers shaped wider immigration policy and ideas about who deserved the benefits of an emerging welfare state. In the 1910s, new immigrants faced nativism from politicians, patriotic societies, and anticommunist organizations, but they found jobs and housing across America's industrial North. This all changed in 1921 and 1924 when Congress passed immigration quotas that wrote long-standing nativism into federal law. New quotas meant smuggled immigrants like Filip Kucharski faced policing and employment practices that criminalized and excluded them from American society. Over the next decade, policing and welfare practices expanded to affect Filip's legal brother Artur, excluding entire communities of ethnic Europeans regardless of their legal status. After quotas, one's citizenship began to dictate whether a migrant could find work, cross the border, join a union, or seek benefits from the state. In Detroit, activism and policy developed both locally and transnationally to create categories that would shape wider immigration regulations and practices about citizenship.

Local, federal, and international policies were mutually constitutive. Thus, Bootlegged Aliens' narrative moves between Windsor, Detroit, Ottawa, and Washington, D.C., often in a single chapter, to argue that local practices in both the United States and Canada influenced federal policy, and once Congress passed laws, it was up to local welfare workers and immigration inspectors to enforce new immigration policy. What emerges is a story that chronicles the ways in which local violence, policy, and practice began to dictate federal immigration policy, demonstrating that, ultimately, it was city welfare workers and politicians who determined which applicants would receive jobs and federal aid. Bootlegged Aliens seeks to demonstrate that it is impossible to fully understand how immigration, welfare, and citizenship laws develop without telling a profoundly local story.

Detroit's role as a northern borderland made it distinctive, while its place as America's third largest city in industrial manufacture meant it shared common problems with other American urban centers. Detroit ranked just after New York and Chicago in manufacturing output, and like these metropolises, the Motor City had a large immigrant population that generated concerns about crime, labor, and welfare distribution. Detroit's situation as a borderland, however, exacerbated many of these issues and added concerns over unauthorized immigration, day labor, and border crossing that tended to characterize cities like San Diego, Tucson, and El Paso during and after World War II. Thus, Detroit had immigration problems that mirrored other industrial centers, but its border with Canada threw issues over immigrants into sharp relief.

Exploiting migrants without citizenship papers has a long history in the United States. In 2019, agribusinesses in Texas, Arizona, and California employed undocumented migrants from Mexico for low wages, but restrictive laws passed one hundred years before allowed employers to exploit workers at the very moment key manufacturing centers like Detroit became so important to America's industrial economy. Soon after quotas took effect, companies like Ford, Chrysler, and Packard began hiring migrants like Filip Kucharski who, because they had no papers, would work under harsh conditions for little pay. When these workers challenged their employers, joined unions, or sought better conditions in Windsor, they faced layoffs and deportation raids that extended across the entire Detroit-Windsor borderland. Thus, Bootlegged Aliens uncovers the northern industrial origins of an exploitative system that emerged on America's border with Canada and remains central to debates about America's borders.

Bootlegged Aliens also argues that Canada became crucial to the development of American immigration and citizenship policy. In fact, when the New Deal promised a liberalization of American immigration policy, conservative Detroit politicians looked to Canadian immigration practices for nativist inspiration. The book's main focus remains on Detroit, but because the automobile industry extended transnationally into Windsor to form a larger metropolitan region, ignoring Canadian politics obscures part of this local story. When the United States enacted immigration quotas, effectively closing the border, Canadian businesses and politicians insisted on keeping the border open to Canadian border crossers who held positions in American industries. By the Depression, however, the Canadian government began to target immigrants, rounding them up for deportation or banishment to relief camps on Canada's frontier. Detroit's proximity to such policies meant local conservative politicians and nativist leaders invoked Canadian policies as a viable alternative to the leftist proposals of local politicians and soon the federal government.

In Detroit, New Deal policies incited a nativist backlash that linked "the foreigner" to communism, union activism, and welfare cheating. Subsequent nativist lobbies prompted the federal government to take a harder line on immigrants. This challenges scholarship by historians that argues European ethnics achieved broad acceptance during the Depression through inclusion in labor unions and New Deal social programs. Bootlegged Aliens finds that while by 1936, New Deal labor policies had allowed for the rise of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and federal work programs had employed tens of thousands of immigrants in very public Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs across urban centers, they continued to face criminalization, policing, and exclusionary laws that stalled their acceptance into the workplace, unions, and federal welfare programs. Indeed, in response to the federal government's leftward turn, Detroit's conservative leaders and nativists began to cast union members and WPA workers as communists and foreigners, making it possible and politically popular to bar noncitizens from state programs in the years that followed. In 1939, the Roosevelt administration ceded to local nativist lobbies by barring all noncitizens from federal programs. Against the backdrop of the New Deal, local police, federal enforcers, and nativist politicians and activists used the success of organized labor and the growing welfare state to demand harsher checks on immigrants.

By focusing on Europeans along America's often-overlooked northern border, Bootlegged Aliens uncovers how grassroots actors, city policies, and international pressures shaped the development of American immigration laws between two world wars. Historians and legal scholars have produced important work on the ways in which immigration quotas and restrictions redefined the boundaries of American citizenship, but their work tends to focus on policy in Washington, D.C. Mae Ngai, in particular, investigates how immigration restrictions between 1882 and 1924 turned Asians and Latinos into "illegal aliens," a development she argues allowed white European immigrants to become citizens by the 1930s. Though her book includes a chapter chronicling European deportation, its focus on high-level policy decisions in Congress, the Department of Labor, and America's legal system obscures the complexities of local nativist struggles. By using Detroit as an entry point to examine how the intertwined stories of deportation, anti-immigrant activism, and clashes over labor played out on the ground, this book finds that certain Europeans faced stigmatization as "illegal aliens" or "foreigners" well into the 1930s. Thus, even as liberal lawmakers began to negotiate reforms to naturalize law-abiding Europeans and reunite families, in Detroit, southern and eastern Europeans without citizenship faced nativist harassment, job loss, and barriers to welfare. This sustained European exclusion formed a crucial part of America's long history of deporting, expelling, and barring people from its shores.

Bootlegged Aliens profiles the Border Patrol and Immigration Service's robust policing operations on America's northern border to argue that on the U.S.-Canada border, "foreigners" earned a disadvantaged position in the state. A wealth of borderland literature focusing on the U.S.-Mexico border explores the ways in which policing and the local politics of immigration rendered Mexican immigrants foreign, renegotiated boundary lines, and shaped the emergence of agribusiness and border regulation across the Sunbelt. By focusing on the U.S. border with Canada, Bootlegged Aliens broadens this scholarship to underscore how immigration into major industrial centers like Detroit shaped immigrant hiring practices and influenced federal policies toward noncitizens.

Detroit's ethnic Europeans faced constant policing that associated their national groups with crime and made punishing them a popular option. A robust new literature on the American carceral state has shed light on the ways in which African Americans negotiated policing and incarceration throughout the twentieth century. Kelly Lytle Hernández has joined this literature to the history of immigration by exploring how in Los Angeles, the U.S.-Mexico border intensified policing and turned the city into a center of mass incarceration. Few scholars, however, have sought to understand where ethnic Europeans fit into this story of policing. Bootlegged Aliens draws on the methodologies of incarceration scholars to argue that certain Europeans, particularly those of Jewish and Catholic origin, faced policing that paralleled punishment meted out to African Americans in America's Motor City.

But policing and deportations never stripped European immigrants of their claims to whiteness. Unlike African American, Mexican, and even some Arab migrants to the city, Europeans could live where they wanted and, if they naturalized, could gain access to the same jobs and benefits afforded to native-born Americans. This interpretation challenges literature on whiteness that argues employers, politicians, and cultural elites categorized Irish, Italian, and various Slavic immigrants as nonwhite and that these groups had to fight to achieve their white insider status. Bootlegged Aliens finds that though ethnic workers faced exclusions through the Depression era, they retained a higher racial status than non-European migrants to the city, a point that the book emphasizes by discussing the ways African American, Mexican, and Arab migrants negotiated Detroit's deportation and employment practices.

Scholars of unsanctioned immigration struggle with questions about numbers because it is difficult to count people who worked every day to stay off the record. Even official reports prove problematic because Department of Labor officials often underplayed or exaggerated statistics. But more important than the physical numbers was the fact that local and federal officials became genuinely concerned about undocumented immigration on the U.S.-Canada border. In 1928, Commissioner General on Immigration Harry E. Hull reported, "Detroit earns its reputation as the 'worst in the country' for immigrant smuggling." And by 1930, officials conjectured that around one thousand illegal immigrants crossed into the city each month. Regardless of the actual numbers, a study of this region is critical to uncovering how southern and eastern Europeans negotiated rising fears about illegality and exclusion in ways that often paralleled the experiences of Asians and Latinos in the decades that followed. Studies examining border crossing in the urban North tend to focus on vice, liquor, and drug smuggling. While vice and liquor were integral to the development of cross-border networks along the U.S.-Canada border, the illegal migration of people across this boundary, particularly between Detroit and Windsor, remains largely neglected. Bootlegged Aliens brings the conversation over citizenship and illegality to the industrial North, focusing on the role of local immigrants, politicians, and employers in forging federal immigration law and practice.

A history of European immigrants from the 1921 Emergency Quota Act to the beginning of World War II reframes what it meant to be foreign in America's interwar era. Beginning with federal quotas, which Congress drafted in 1921 and finalized in 1924, allows the book to pick up where many histories of European immigration end. Bootlegged Aliens uncovers the ways in which new immigration laws opened an era of policing, employer exploitation, and the state-sponsored harassment of European foreigners.

The book's first three chapters focus on the implementation of federal immigration quotas from 1921 to 1929. Overlapping chronologically yet moving forward in time, they examine the enforcement of quota laws, immigrant pushback to new quotas, and their economic consequences for a border region that relied on open trade and immigration. Chapter 1 argues that 1921 and 1924 quotas essentially closed the Detroit-Windsor border with immigration inspectors and U.S. Border Patrol officers, a development that built Windsor into a city of automobile branch plants and robust immigrant smuggling. The rise in immigrant smuggling associated all Detroit foreigners with illegal immigration and crime, a development that alarmed established northern European groups. Thus, Chapter 2 follows Detroit's Irish, Scandinavian, and German immigrants in their lobbies to keep their quotas high under the National Origins Act, a move they hoped would keep their ethnic groups from the stigma of undesirability. And while their efforts failed to overturn quotas, they managed to disassociate their ethnic groups from stigmas of illegality, a development that becomes clear in 1928, when the Detroit police launched a deportation drive that targeted southern and eastern European neighborhoods of Detroit. Chapter 3 delves into the politics of employment, exploring how unions, employers, and two federal governments engaged in economic arguments that negotiated border crossing as an Anglo-Canadian privilege. At the heart of this controversy were twenty thousand Canadians who commuted from Windsor to Detroit each day for work. Union efforts to end the practice incited an international struggle that ended with the U.S. Department of State negotiating an agreement with Canada that allowed Anglo-Canadians and British nationals to keep commuter cards yet restricted commuters of foreign origin. New economic sanctions made the border between "desirable" Anglo-Saxon North Americans and "undesirable" ethnic Europeans more important than the international boundary.

The Great Depression decimated the automobile industry, creating widespread unemployment in both Detroit and Windsor that made local citizens favor nativist policies with renewed vigor. Chapter 4 chronicles how unemployed workers in Detroit and Windsor responded to the Depression by electing leftist reform mayors, but despite Mayor Frank Murphy or David Croll's views on immigration, both local leaders oversaw extensive deportation drives. In Detroit, the federal and local government cooperated to return thousands of Mexican immigrants and citizens to Mexico, while Europeans faced increased deportations in both the United States and Canada. Ultimately, the chapter argues that during the Great Depression, local deportation policies in Detroit and Windsor began to coexist comfortably with leftist political programs, tethering hard-line immigration policy to growing welfare initiatives.

The final three chapters analyze immigrant policy in Detroit during the New Deal era, when the politics of immigration became entangled with issues of labor and welfare. Chapter 5 uses the battle over immigrant registration in Michigan, which pitted the city's major union, the Detroit Federation of Labor (DFL) against employers and ethnic groups. Though the Michigan Registration Act of 1931 did not make it through judicial review, it did alienate foreign-born Europeans from the labor movement. When in 1933, the DFL joined with a local communist union to organize the automobile industry against Briggs Body Company, many foreign-born workers stayed home, ultimately undermining the union's efforts. As noted in Chapter 6, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal brought liberalized labor laws and inclusive immigration policies to the region, but these changes also incited a local nativist backlash. By 1935, the UAW managed to organize skeptical ethnic workers, but savvy nativists and employers used the strength of the UAW to cast all its members as communists and foreigners. Chapter 7 introduces Detroit's campaign against welfare fraud to argue that Mayor Richard Reading harnessed resentment toward New Deal policies to cripple the UAW and cast foreigners as welfare cheaters. Local pressure to purge foreigners from welfare reached the federal government, and by May 1939, the Roosevelt administration cut all aliens from the WPA, costing ten thousand Detroiters their only means of support. A year later, Congress passed the 1940 Registration Act, a move that would not have been possible without the prior two decades of anti-immigrant activism.

The book ends with an epilogue that sheds light on the long history of debates over migrant labor, trade, and crime. In the twenty-first century, unauthorized immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia have become crucial to the service, agricultural, and construction industries in the United States. Just across the U.S.-Mexico border, maquiladoras, or border factories, employ local workers at low costs to manufacture goods for American industries. American employers' increasing reliance on these migrants has provoked backlash from politicians, unions, and right-wing groups who blame undocumented workers for cash-strapped welfare programs, for spikes in urban crime, and, of course, for taking American jobs. The election of Donald Trump has brought these issues into sharp relief, but Bootlegged Aliens demonstrates that struggles over immigrant labor, welfare, and noncitizenship have a long history and that they once focused on the U.S.-Canada border. Moreover, while many contemporary politicians cast the undocumented as a racial threat from Central and South America and the Middle East, Bootlegged Aliens highlights the fact that certain Europeans once faced stigmas as "illegal immigrants" and "non-Americans." While today race looms large in such discussions, during the interwar era, politicians and newspapers used the concept of foreignness to convey the potential danger these newcomers posed to the nation, suggesting that they possessed political and social traits that meant they could not become true Americans. Both in the 1920s and today, employers have used these stigmas of "foreignness" and "racial otherness" to exploit immigrant populations for the inexpensive labor they provide.

Ultimately, Bootlegged Aliens demonstrates that Europeans have not always been legal. By the Depression era, immigrants like Andrew Boyko, the Ukrainian profiled in this book's opening, found themselves associated with illegal entry and had to constantly prove their allegiance to the state. Some did this by seeking naturalization. But as Boyko found, the process was far from simple. Under the terms of the 1906 Naturalization Act Boyko would have needed to take out his "first papers" or "declaration of intention" to naturalize at any federal court, a process that came with a five-dollar fee. In the next two to seven years, Boyko could have petitioned the court for naturalization, or final citizenship papers. Boyko may not have had five dollars to spare to take out his first papers, and the 1906 law's final requirement, that the petitioner be "familiar with English and the Constitution," would have certainly intimidated him. Thus, thousands of immigrants like Boyko steered clear of the naturalization process, finding themselves in legal limbo as immigration laws created regulations around them.

By uncovering the stories of Europeans who chose not to Americanize or could not become citizens, Bootlegged Aliens argues that it was in the spaces between citizenship and illegality that state and local officials determined the boundaries of new laws. In 1927, Secretary of Labor James Davis reported to Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent that "hundreds of thousands, and possibly more than a million" immigrants lived within America's borders who were technically legal because they entered before 1921 quota laws yet could not apply for citizenship for lack of documentation, funds, or language skill. These "men without a country," as the article calls them, could not vote, practice law, settle on public lands, or reunite their families. Harassed by nativists and relegated to the worst jobs in industries across the nation, these men and women offer an alternate history of European Americans and the local industrial origins of America's immigration state.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. "Illegal Immigrants" in an Industrial Borderland
Chapter 2. Defining Undesirables and Protesting Quotas
Chapter 3. The Problem of Canadian Day Laborers
Chapter 4. Reform, Repatriation, and Deportation During the Depression
Chapter 5. Registering Immigrants in the Depression Era
Chapter 6. The Immigrant Politics of Anticommunism
Chapter 7. Aliens and Welfare in North America
Conclusion. The Legacy of Restrictive Immigration