Saturday, July 9, 2011

Law and Foreign Affairs History: A SHAFR Roundtable, part 5

From Robert McGreevey, The College of New Jersey:

The Place of Citizenship Law and Migration in the Study of Foreign Relations

My work brings together the study of colonial law and migration, two usually separate fields. In my research on the Jones Act of 1917, which granted a form of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans living on the island, I have found that the study of colonial migration is crucial to understanding colonial law itself. While some scholars have treated the Jones Act as a turning point, placing Puerto Ricans as “second class citizens” on a different legal footing than, say, Mexicans deemed “non-citizens,” I have found migration stories that complicate this narrative.

Puerto Ricans were often assumed to be noncitizens at the end of World War I when factory owners and shipyard managers demobilized wartime industries. Employers justified firing Puerto Rican employees on the basis of their presumed “alien” status in order to make room for returning citizens. When Puerto Ricans protested that they were, in fact, U.S. citizens under the terms of the Jones Act, employers directed them to “bring a paper from the court showing you are a citizen.” Those that took their case to the U.S. Circuit court in San Francisco found they were considered by the court to be aliens. When Puerto Ricans petitioned the Bureau of Insular Affairs for identity cards that could prove their citizenship before employers, the Bureau declined.

Tensions raised by migration were the crucial element in generating legal debate and reasoning over Puerto Rican belonging to the United States. In fact, the movement of migrants into U.S. states generated such friction and debate over citizenship law precisely because Puerto Ricans’ second-class citizenship status was rooted in the territorial status of the island. Moving to a state meant testing the extent of citizenship outside colonial constraints. Migration stories of Puerto Ricans and other colonial subjects not only help us understand the history of colonial migrants and their struggles for citizenship, they also help us understand colonial law as an arena of contestation.  

This is, of course, just one example of how the study of citizenship and migration can help us more fully understand important aspects of colonialism and U.S. foreign policy. But there is much more we can learn about the history of the U.S. in the world by comparing the experiences of different migrants—both colonial subjects from Puerto Rico and the Philippines and foreign migrants from Mexico, Korea and elsewhere—as they enter the Untied States mainland from countries shaped by U.S. policy.

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