Kevin Sitz
Graduate student, political science, UCR

The scholarship on the treatment of foreign-born populations during wartime in the United States focuses on the construction of threat, the appeal for citizenship and service, the racialization of the enemy, and the need for immigrant labor. Scholars examine these topics to trace subjects ranging from the construction of the “illegal immigrant” (see Ngai 2004) to the development of citizenship in exchange for military service (see Wong and Cho 2006). Case studies then focus on subjects like military service, immigrant incorporation, the internment of “enemy aliens,” and policies that allow for temporary working visas.

The way the polity perceives foreign-born populations during wartime, and the levels of threat or inferiority assigned to these populations, has directly impacted immigrant groups throughout American history. The designations of “perpetual foreigner,” or even “enemy alien” during wartime were ubiquitous in the America in the twentieth century, and groups in the American west, like Asian Americans, had to navigate these constructions, which profoundly impacted their lives through the denial of basic civil liberties (Barkan 2007; Daniels 2004a). The notion of who was eligible to belong in the American nation-state was an important topic in the early twentieth century and elite figures like Theodore Roosevelt envisioned a melting pot that often excluded people without European origin (Dyer 1980). An exclusionary immigration policy, and even the eventual internment of Japanese Americans, resulted from these socio-political ideas (Barkan 2007; Daniels 2004a; Dyer 1980; Ngai 1998). Policies during the Second World War stripped many Japanese Americans of their citizenship and rights, and kept tight surveillance over resident alien populations (Daniels et al. 2001; Daniels 2004a; Daniels 2004b). The discourses related to race, threat, and war are often bound tightly together, and war heightens the construction of racial boundaries while asserting the inferiority of the “other.” This is particularly acute in the propaganda from the Second World War, which continued to racialize the Japanese enemy (Dower 1986).

Immigrants are not always held at arm’s length during wartime, and sometimes they can be viewed as key allies and citizens-in-training. In fact, the United States has a long history of jus meritum citizenship whereby immigrants earn citizenship through military service.(Wong and Cho 2006). Throughout the development of the War (Defense) Department in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States has turned to immigrant volunteers during wartime (Chambers 1987). For instance, in the Civil War, immigrants (esp. Irish, German, and Eastern Europeans) were recruited into the Union Army and divided into ethnicity-based fighting units (Burton 1998). This tactic of turning to America’s immigrant population was used again in the First World War as many leaders advocated that service, along with a host of other pro-war activities, would lead to greater Americanization (Breen 1984). For example, Jewish and Italian immigrants were promised greater inclusion in American society as well as more access to social services (Sterba 2003). However, with the first Red Scare and an increase in anti-antisemitism and anti-Catholicism, Sterba (2003) shows that today’s allies could become tomorrow’s enemies.

In addition to military service, the state also attracted immigrants to another type of service: working in the fields and factories. Policies like the Bracero Program attracted Mexican immigrants to work in the agricultural sector, which needed workers during the Second World War, yet this essential service did not lead to the benefits of citizenship or greater inclusion in the polity that military service provided (Daniels 2004a; Ngai 2004). In fact, many laborers were stripped of their savings, and they lacked protection from exploitation on both sides of the border when they returned to Mexico (Daniels 2004a).

The themes and questions covered by the literature on wartime immigration have some interesting connections to areas for further study. This scholarship can connect to the broader literature on citizenship, immigrant labor, and incorporation. Also, this literature could dovetail with some of the International Relations scholarship on refugees (Teitelbaum 1984) and Sociology literature on post-WWII immigration to the US (see Rumbaut 1994). The War on Terror (see Engle 2004) could also provide key case study evidence, especially in terms of the construction of the “good alien” (see Engle 2004). Finally, the United States was not the only country to designate part of its population as “enemy aliens” during the First World War, as one could turn to Canada for an interesting comparison of cases (Farney and Kordan 2005). The existing literature on the relationship between immigrants, the state, and war provides us with a way to think about how themes like citizenship, access to social services, and economic necessity frame policies that often tightly control the activities of immigrants during wartime.

Barkan, Elliott Robert. 2007. From All Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870s-1952. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Breen, William J. 1984. Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Burton, William L. 1998. Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments. Fordham University Press: New York, NY.

Chambers, John Whiteclay. 1987. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Dower, John W. 1986. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Dyer, Thomas G. 1980. Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Engle, Karen. 2004. “Constructing Good Aliens and Good Citizens: Legitimizing the War on Terror(ism).”University of Colorado Law Review. 75: 59-114.

Farney, James and Bohdan S. Kordan. 2005. “The Predicament of Belonging: The Status of Enemy Aliens in Canada, 1914.” Journal of Canadian Studies. 39 (1) (Winter): 74-89.

Ngai, Mae M. 2004. Impossible subjects : illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.

__________. 1998. “Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration during the Cold War Years.” Journal of American Ethnic History. 18 (1) (Fall): 3-35.

Rumbaut, Rubén G. 1994. “Origins and Destinies: Immigration to the United States Since World War II.”Sociological Forum. 9 (4) (Dec): 583-621.

Sterba, Christopher M. 2003. Good Americans: Italian and Jewish immigrants during the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Teitelbaum, Michael S. 1984. “Immigration, Refugees, and Foreign Policy.” International Organization. 38 (3) (Summer): 429-450.

Wong, Cara and Grace Cho. 2006. “Jus Meritum: Citizenship for Service.” In Transforming Politics, Transforming America., eds Taeku Lee, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Ricardo Ramirez. Carlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.