The Disturbing History of Sending Migrants to Other States

tags: Texas, immigration

Hidetaka Hirota is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy.

The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona are sending thousands of migrants by bus to cities on the East Coast, especially New York City and D.C. Many of them are Venezuelan asylum seekers. Upon arriving at their destinations, they are discharged without money, food, shelter or work. Abandoned on the streets, homeless and without money, they have to seek relief from local religious and voluntary groups. The governors claim this policy is necessary because of the Biden administration’s inability to prevent the admission of undesirable foreigners at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is also an effort to embarrass pro-immigration politicians and create the appearance of chaos to justify cruel policies.

While the bus ride is one of the latest policies adopted in the southwestern states in response to the increased arrival of asylum seekers from Latin America, “migrant dumping” — expelling foreigners and subsequently abandoning them without consideration for their welfare and humanity — has long been a feature of American nativism. One precedent for the practice can be found in 19th-century Massachusetts.

The questions of who should be responsible for managing immigration and whether needy foreigners should be treated with compassion or turned back, rejected as a drain on the American community, were as politically contentious in the antebellum period as they are today. The arrival of severely impoverished Irish Catholic migrants fleeing famine in their homeland in the mid-19th century led the Massachusetts legislature to develop a policy for deporting indigent foreigners dependent on public relief to Europe.

This policy was stimulated by intense anti-Irish nativism that considered destitute Irish migrants public health threats and financial burdens. Between the 1830s and the 1880s, Massachusetts continuously expelled poor Irish men, women and children, sending them both out of state and overseas. Courts, politicians and shipping companies debated whether immigration was a state or federal affair. In practice, state governments managed immigration for most of these decades.

Throughout the implementation of the deportation policy, Massachusetts officials maintained that removals were conducted humanely. A legislative report on the enforcement of state immigration law in 1855 concluded that “there is no room for the operation of any improper motives or unreasonable severity.” The Massachusetts alien commissioners, who carried out the deportation law, declared that removed migrants were “properly provided with all the comforts that were necessary.”

In reality, however, Massachusetts’ deportation policy was far from humane. Driven by nativist sentiment, state officials aggressively removed Irish immigrants accommodated at charitable institutions to Britain and Ireland, sometimes by kidnapping them. Any semblance of due process was absent in these removals. The state even deported migrants with mental illness who were unable to communicate, by insisting that they consented to go home.


Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post