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May 17, 2023 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm CDT

Speaker Series: Kevin Kenny

History, New York University
The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic
Hybrid: Virtual/In-Person (ABF Offices, 750 N Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor Chicago, IL)

Today the United States considers immigration and border control a federal matter. Before the Civil War, however, the federal government played virtually no role in regulating immigration.

In this presentation, based on his recently published book The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic: Policing Mobility in the Nineteenth-Century United States, (Oxford University Press, 2023), Kevin Kenny will demonstrate how the existence, abolition, and legacies of slavery shaped the emergence of a national immigration policy in the nineteenth century. For a century after the American Revolution, states controlled mobility within and across their borders and set their own rules for community membership. Throughout the antebellum era, defenders of slavery feared that, if Congress gained control over immigration, it could also regulate the movement of free black people and even the interstate slave trade. The Civil War and the abolition of slavery removed the political and constitutional obstacles to a national immigration policy, yet they did not make that policy inevitable. The first national immigration controls were directed not at immigrants generally, but at Chinese immigrants in particular. Admission remained the norm for Europeans; Chinese laborers were excluded through techniques of registration, punishment, and deportation first used against free black people in the antebellum South. The federal government continues to control admissions and exclusions today but tensions within federalism, rooted in nineteenth-century history, remain important to the lives of immigrants after arrival. Some states monitor and punish immigrants, while others offer sanctuary and refuse to act as agents of federal law enforcement, echoing the personal liberty laws passed in response to fugitive slave acts in the antebellum era. Revealing the tangled origins of border control, incarceration, and deportation, this presentation sheds light on the history of race and belonging in America, as well as ongoing conflicts between state and federal authority over immigration today.

This speaker will present virtually, with the option to view in-person at the ABF. To register, contact Sophie Kofman at skofman@abfn.org


Kevin Kenny is Glucksman Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013), Peaceable Kingdom Lost (OUP, 2009), The American Irish: A History (Longman, 2002), and Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (OUP, 1998). Currently President of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians, Professor Kenny came to the United States as an immigrant in the 1980s.