Expelling the Poor: The Antebellum Origins of American Deportation Policy

Dehumanizing insults to foreigners, aggressive enforcement of immigration law by overzealous officials, and tragic family separation routinely appear in immigration-related news in the United States today. At the center of the present immigration debate is deportation policy. While current deportation policy primarily targets undocumented immigrants, the legal system of expelling foreigners itself is deeply rooted in American history, perhaps more deeply than most Americans would think. It is now relatively well known that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the admission of Chinese laborers, was the first federal legislation that had a deportation provision. The law made deportable Chinese laborers who entered the nation in violation of the act. Yet this hardly means that no deportation law existed in the United States prior to federal Chinese exclusion. Before the 1880s, local and state governments administered immigration, excluding and deporting indigent foreigners with the Irish as principal targets. The origins of American immigration restriction lay in antebellum state-level policies on the Atlantic seaboard, which were driven partly by cultural prejudice against destitute Irish immigrants but even more fundamentally by economic concerns about their poverty and dependency.

“Emigrants leaving Queenstown [Ireland] for New York,” Harper’s Weekly, September 26, 1874 (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. “American Citizens! . . . They are disgorging themselves upon us at the rate of Hundreds of Thousands Every Year! They aim at nothing short of conquest and supremacy over us,” advertisement for the American Patriot, a nativist newspaper, Boston, 1852 (Library of Congress)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.”[1] 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.”[2]

In response to growing anti-Irish sentiment, legislatures in eastern seaboard states built upon the colonial poor law to develop immigration laws to restrict the landing of destitute foreigners and people likely to become public charges. The formation of state-level immigration control was led by two states that received particularly large numbers of Irish immigrants, New York and Massachusetts. Legislatures in these states established agencies specifically devoted to implementing state immigration laws, including the exclusion of the poor. In 1847, the New York legislature established the Board of the Commissioners of Emigration. The Massachusetts legislature founded the office of Superintendent of Alien Passengers in 1848 and, three years later, expanded the office by establishing the Board of the Commissioners of Alien Passengers and Foreign Paupers.

“The Propagation Society.—More Free Than Welcome,” anti-Catholic and anti-Irish cartoon, likely by Louis Maurer, in which bishops anchor their boat to the shore of the US with a crozier hooked around a shamrock as the pope steps ashore, New York, 1855 (Library of Congress)While New York used landing restriction as the major form of immigration control, an exceptionally strong anti-Catholic and anti-Irish tradition in Massachusetts inspired the legislature to go beyond merely setting entry regulations by developing laws for deporting foreign paupers already resident in the United States back to Europe, Canada, or other US states. A Massachusetts law of 1851 authorized state immigration officials to deport any foreign pauper in the state “to any place beyond [the] sea, where he belongs.”[3] Under this law, the officials expelled indigent foreigners, chiefly the Irish, from Massachusetts throughout the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. Just like undocumented immigrants today, the Irish poor were in essence categorized as people who had no right to public benefits and even physical residence in the nation.

Throughout the 1850s, Massachusetts immigration officials ruthlessly enforced the deportation law. In 1851, Eliza Sullivan, an Irish woman who had lived in the United States for eighteen years, was arrested in Southbridge, Massachusetts, “on the charge of being an incumbrance or expense on the town.” Officials then arranged the transfer of Sullivan and her children to New York to place them on board a ship to Liverpool. In the process, Sullivan left one of her children, a four-year-old boy, in Boston for fear that he would not survive the transatlantic voyage. Ultimately, Sullivan became a lucky one. By the time the ship was about to depart, the New York Irish Emigrant Society had become aware of the case and rescued the family from the ship. Nevertheless, Irish-American newspapers publicized the incident as a case of “kidnapping” or “abduction,” criticizing the sweeping power of public officials over the lives of immigrants.[4] On another occasion, the officials placed two children of Irish-born parents on board a Liverpool-bound ship after the parents ran away. A Boston newspaper noted that the mayor of the city ordered the suspension of their deportation for humanitarian reasons, but it could not ascertain “whether or not the order was obeyed.”[5] Regardless, the initial attempt to send away the children without their parents indicates the utter absence of consideration for deportees’ welfare in the operation of deportation policy in Massachusetts.

“Poor House from Galway,” cartoon by W. A. Rogers depicting the arrival at Boston of “650 paupers . . . in the steamship Nestoria, April 15th, from Galway, Ireland,” Harper’s Weekly, April 28, 1883 (The Library of Congress)Massachusetts’s deportation law technically applied only to non-citizens, but at the height of anti-Irish nativism during the 1850s, nativist state officials abused their power, expelling even citizens of Irish descent abroad in violation of the law. In May 1855, officials forcibly deported Mary Williams, an Irish-born pauper woman, to Liverpool from a state almshouse in Monson. Banished with Williams was her American-born daughter Bridget, who was an American citizen by birth. The act of deporting a citizen of Massachusetts to Europe appeared so atrocious and deviating from the concept of democratic freedom that the New York Irish-American declared, “We grieve to say the grand experiment of the superiority of self-government has failed in the ancient Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”[6] Deportees from Massachusetts also included naturalized adult citizens. Hugh Carroll, an Irish-born naturalized citizen, was expelled from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, an Irish-American newspaper reported, “across the seas for the crime of being poor.” Carroll was “a citizen and entitled to the protection of the law,” the newspaper noted, “which he did not receive.”[7] Given the colossal power vested in enforcement officers under state laws and their habitual violations of limitations provided by these laws, to be an immigrant pauper in nineteenth-century Massachusetts rendered one rightless in a practical sense.

Immigration control in Massachusetts was far from simply a product of temporary regional hysteria. It instead left lasting impact on American immigration policy. Between the 1880s and 1890s, the federal government introduced general immigration laws for excluding and deporting foreigners of undesirable character, such as paupers, people likely to become public charges, criminals, lunatics, prostitutes, and anarchists, while developing Chinese exclusion laws. Immigrants awaiting examination, Ellis Island, ca. 1907−1921 (Library of Congress)These general laws set the groundwork for subsequent federal immigration laws and were modeled on existing state immigration laws in Massachusetts and New York. The significance of the earlier state-level experience even goes beyond legal and administrative dimensions. From the late nineteenth century onward, federal immigration policy was increasingly guided by the assumption that US officials could do anything to undesirable immigrants if their action was the exercise of police power to protect Americans from economic, moral, and public health threats, minimizing legal protections for foreigners in the execution of immigration laws. Some of the roots of this assumption clearly lay in deportation law enforcement in antebellum Massachusetts. Nativist state officials’ coercive and illegal practices set precedents for federal officers’ assertion of unrestricted power against foreigners.

Long before racism against non-whites stimulated the rise of federal immigration policy, the framework of American deportation policy, and the problems with its implementation, developed at the state level out of concerns about the poverty of Irish immigrants in the antebellum period. Restriction, then, has long been an integral part of the American immigration experience.


[1] Boston Daily Bee, January 26, 1856.

[2] Anonymous correspondence on foreign paupers, May 12, 1847, Folder 2, Box 2, Boston City Council Joint Committee on Alien Passengers Records, City of Boston Archives.

[3] An Act to Appoint a Board of Commissioners in Relation to Alien Passengers and State Paupers (May 24, 1851), Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, in the Years 1849, 1850, 1851, 848.

[4] New York Irish-American, April 26, 1851; Boston Pilot, May 3, 1851; Boston Pilot, June 7, 1851.

[5] Boston Evening Transcript, September 25, 1851; Boston Evening Transcript, October 8, 1851.

[6] Boston Daily Advertiser, May 16, 1855; New York Irish-American, May 26, 1855.

[7] New York Irish-American, January 21, 1860.


Hidetaka Hirota is a historian of American immigration, specializing in the history of American nativism and immigration policy. He is the author of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (Oxford University Press, 2017). He has previously taught at Boston College, Columbia University, and the City College of the City University of New York, and is currently assistant professor in the Institute for Advanced Study at Waseda University in Japan.