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Expelling the Poor

The antebellum origins of American deportation policy.
W.A. Rogers/Library of Congress

The legal origins of American immigration control date back to the colonial period. Basing their practices on the model of the English poor law, which allowed each parish to banish transient beggars from other communities and forcibly send them back to the parish where they legally belonged, the American colonies regulated the movement of the poor, including the removal of transients. After the American Revolution, eastern seaboard states inherited these poor laws.

The state poor laws eventually developed into America’s first immigration laws when a large number of the impoverished Irish fleeing famine in their homeland arrived in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. This immigration of the Irish, many of whom were Catholics, infuriated Protestant Americans, but their poverty equally fueled anti-Irish nativism. Impoverished at home and sickened during the transatlantic passage, a significant number of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States without the physical strength and financial resources to support themselves, entering public charitable institutions, such as almshouses and lunatic hospitals, as paupers soon after landing. In nativist eyes, Irish paupers simply consumed welfare funds supported by Americans’ taxes. Like undocumented immigrants today, they were viewed as lazy welfare abusers. As a Massachusetts nativist put it, an idle “Irish tramper” at a public almshouse engaged in self-indulgence, “smok[ing] her pipe at the expense of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” In an anonymous letter to the Boston City Council, another nativist wrote that “we shall be driven from our houses by the Lazy, Ungrateful, Lying and Thieving population of old Ireland.”

View on Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History