Borders and Bootstraps

Three Worlds of Relief:
Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

by Cybelle Fox
Princeton University Press, 2012, 393 pp.

Crossing Borders:
Migration and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century United States

by Dorothee Schneider
Harvard University Press, 2011, 336 pp.

In a 2012 primary-season campaign speech, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum claimed, “When my grandfather came to this country back in 1925, there were no government benefits.” His grandparents, Santorum said, realized the American Dream on their own, without help from the state. In her brilliant Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, sociologist Cybelle Fox explodes this common “bootstrapping white ethnic” myth. As the Great Depression settled in, Santorum’s grandparents would have found themselves among the fortunate recipients of an array of government benefits not available to African American citizens and Mexican immigrants.

Fox explains how the “intersection of labor, race, and politics” shaped three distinct welfare states for European immigrants, blacks, and Mexicans. (Her title echoes Gosta Esping-Anderson’s influential The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism [1990]). In these welfare states, four factors—regional concentration, labor market context, political context, and racial/color status—combined to produce vastly different outcomes.

Fox shows that European immigrants fared best and blacks and Mexicans worst, although in different ways—blacks, for instance, could not be expelled from the United States. Given the regional distribution of these populations, one might attribute the difference in treatment to geography. But this would be a mistake. The differences among them cannot, for instance, be explained by low levels of benefits in the South and Southwest. “Even after controlling for region of residence, cities with more blacks or Mexicans spent less on relief, while cities with more foreign-born whites spent more.” In concrete terms, “for each ten-percentage-point increase in the black or Mexican population, cities spent roughly $0.17 less per resident on their total relief spending” while for the same increase in the European immigrant population “cities spent $0.22 more in their public and private relief spending.” Because the average spending across all cities was $1.39 per resident, these were significant differences. The relief practices in cities with more Mexicans and blacks also were more likely to depend more on private than on public funds. Overall, “racial and immigrant demographics” accounted for “42 percent of the variation…in the source of relief funding across cities.”

Fox shows how current explanations for the development of America’s welfare state rely almost exclusively on a “black-white framework” that excludes the Southwest and Mexicans. By bringing them in, she links welfare to the history of immigration. “The welfare state,” she argues in one of her most powerful insights, “may best be viewed as an extension of the Immigration Service, where one of its functions becomes not the provision of assistance but rather the expulsion of individuals or even segments of an entire population from the nation.”

Fox complicates conventional ideas about how federalism and professionalism shaped patterns of welfare practice. Localism, it is usually thought, worked against relatively generous relief. In the South, this indeed was the case, but localism could cut in the opposite direction as well. Although blacks and Mexicans found themselves shut out of benefits provided by local governments, local control did not “present the same problems for European immigrants—even aliens,” especially in Northeastern cities where machine politics and other institutions such as settlement houses, unions, and schools “encouraged the political incorporation of immigrants,” sometimes mediating “access to relief.” Thus, although the “federal government and northern states sometimes passed laws excluding non-citizens from benefits, local administration and control often led to greater overall welfare spending, protection from immigration agents and discriminatory legislation, as well as access to quite generous relief assistance, at least by the standards of the day.”


Much the same point could be made about the role of local city governments today, upsetting facile generalizations about the consequences of federalism for both immigrant law enforcement and public benefits. Fox’s attention to variation among local governments also revises T. H. Marshall’s famous paradigm for the expansion of citizenship from civil and political to social rights. Contrary to Marshall, she shows that social citizenship did not depend on the prior acquisition of civil and political citizenship. Politicians did pass citizenship requirements for a few state and federal relief programs. However, only the Works Progress Administration (and a few other work relief programs) and Old Age Assistance excluded non-U.S. citizens, and even these restrictions proved “generally short-lived and unevenly applied.”

The ideas and activities of social workers, Fox shows, varied by region. (Fox writes extensively about “social workers,” but leaves them a shadowy group, not describing their backgrounds, education, or responsibilities and distribution among public and private agencies.) In the South, social workers shared the prevailing belief in blacks’ racial inferiority and inability to assimilate to white society and supported their exclusion from relief and social services, viewing them as the group least likely to depend on relief because they “had lower standards of living than whites” and “were indolent.” In the Southwest, social workers grew increasingly doubtful that Mexicans could assimilate and came to believe them “lazy, shiftless, and disproportionately dependent on public funds.” As a result, they joined the clamor for their exclusion and deportation from the United States. Social workers, however, for reasons Fox does not clarify, remained at odds with the negative public stereotypes of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and decisively rejected characterizations of them as excessively dependent. Instead, they argued for extending them relief as “the natural humanistic response, perhaps even necessary for their full Americanization.”

Social worker responses reflected different definitions of the deserving and undeserving poor—the oldest distinction in the history of poverty. Although the labels have remained ubiquitous for centuries, the identities of occupants in each category have shifted with time and circumstances. Just how to identify the undeserving poor is a tricky methodological issue because rhetoric is not the sole guide. Rather, it is crucial to look as well to actions, especially to how groups of people are treated in fact and to uncover the processes through which distinctions are constructed.

One of Fox’s signal contributions is to show how in the 1930s public and private officials defined the ancient categories. Not only did they “try to resist political interference, they actively constructed populations as deserving or undeserving, wielded data to prove their pre-conceptions, and made sustained efforts to convince local and national legislators and the broader public of their ‘expert’ opinions.” Out of this process, Mexicans emerged as members of the undeserving poor, a perception that has persisted into our own day, growing only more virulent with the massive increase in Mexican migration in the last decades of the twentieth-century.

Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, hostility to all immigrants, not just the undocumented, infects American politics. From the passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s until the 1970s, Fox points out, “there continued to be no federal citizenship or legal status restrictions for access to virtually any of our welfare state programs.” New programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid followed this precedent. Then, between 1972 and 1976, “the federal government for the first time barred undocumented immigrants from nearly every major welfare and social insurance program.” These restrictions intensified until in the 1996 “welfare reform” legislation Congress excluded even legal immigrants from the benefits for which they previously had been eligible, thereby relegating all needy immigrants to the ranks of the undeserving poor.

Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, hostility to all immigrants, not just the undocumented, infects American politics.

The place of Mexicans among the “undeserving” poor was underscored in two ways—by denial of relief and by expulsion from the country, which was achieved directly through deportation and indirectly through “voluntary” repatriation. “In the most extreme cases, the welfare office quite literally turned into an immigration bureau or became an extralegal arm of the Immigration Service, expelling those immigration laws could not touch.”


Deportation is the first point of overlap between Fox’s book and Dorothee Schneider’s Crossing Borders: Migration and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century United States. Deportation is the most understudied theme in the history of American immigration—the dirty underside belying the welcoming torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. There is in fact only one modern history of deportation, Daniel Kanstroom’s 2010 Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Recent events, however, have moved deportation front and center in public policy. For reasons not wholly clear, the Obama administration ramped up deportation to about 400,000 per year. As Nina Bernstein reported on the practice in the New York Times in 2010, immigrants awaiting deportation are held in a patchwork of about 350 jails and prisons, at a cost of around $1.7 billion. As immigrants, they are unprotected by such constitutional rights as habeas corpus, and their families often do not know where they are being imprisoned.

Deportation is one of the “borders” discussed by Schneider who conceptualizes the history of American immigration in the twentieth century as crossing a series of borders—leaving home, landing in America, forced departures, undergoing Americanization, and becoming a citizen. The border metaphor by and large proves successful as a way of framing immigrant history. Beautifully written, filled with vivid stories, Crossing Borders is ideal for use with students and accessible to non-specialist readers. It must be said, though, that the small number of pages devoted to post-1965 immigration limits the book’s claims to cover the twentieth century.

By organizing immigrant experience around borders, Schneider raises a central conceptual issue in immigration history. Has there been a paradigmatic “immigrant experience” in America as implied, for example, in Oscar Handlin’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People? Or does the experience of each group require separate analysis? Fox does not confront this question explicitly—it is not her concern—but her book implicitly supports the latter view. Indeed, most recent immigration history except for textbooks, reinforces the nominalist view by focusing on specific groups and the peculiarities of their situations. Immigrants, after all, vary in every way—national origin, education, wealth, occupation—and have nothing in common except birth outside the United States.

Schneider helps us step back from this dizzying image to ask what immigrants share. This, she shows, is a process, a series of passages through which each one, regardless of differences, must pass. At the same time, she is sensitive to distinctions among the ways different groups of immigrants negotiated the common borders they crossed, and she pays special attention to the neglected way in which gender shaped border crossings. Indeed, Schnieder uses obscure Immigration and Naturalization Service case records and reports to balance her general interpretations with the granular evocation of lived experience. Her conclusions about deportation illustrate both the particularity of her analysis and her stress on the negotiated character of immigrant experience. While “deportees have always stood for the failed promise of immigration to America,” immigrants often successfully avoided deportation or renegotiated it to become “successful immigrants after all.” Europeans, responding to “the vision of citizenship that lay behind the enforcement of immigration law for them, resorted to the personal plea, which emphasized character and economic independence.” Asian immigrants found themselves required to take a different tack, resorting “to procedural tactics involving lawyers and definitions of law, because they were not part of the imagined family of future citizens of the United States.”

Like Fox, Schneider stresses the different assessment and treatment received by Mexicans, but where Fox focuses on the beliefs and actions of social workers, Schneider emphasizes immigration agents, showing the conflation of race and nationality in the enforcement of immigration policy. Also like Fox, she shows how the response to immigration fed the construction of the distinction between worthy and unworthy, in her case defined by who deserved to enter the United States. In her story, however, the determination of worthiness proved a temporary job for border officials. “With the diminishing function of immigration inspectors as selectors of worthy immigrants and future citizens,” she writes, “came an increasing reliance on the immigration service as a police agency at the border.”

Immigrant-led Americanization took place “in a wide variety of settings” including workplaces and dance halls, churches, and voluntary associations and often happened “in ways that only partially reflected the wishes of Americanizers.”

Schneider, like Fox, finds in the history of immigration a message relevant to today’s politicians. What emerges from the stories in her book “is not what many politicians wanted us to believe in the late twentieth century: that all migrants who come to the United States try to stay permanently, that successful immigration means Americanization, and that successful immigrants become U.S. citizens in the end.” Rather, the story is much messier, and more interesting. Immigration “in many ways is an open-ended process. Immigrants cross many borders, often not in the order intended by law and politics, and with uncertain results.” The story is told best as a series of encounters and negotiations between immigrants and government representatives which most immigrants “conclude . . . successfully,” if not wholly on their own terms.


The contested question, what does it mean to be an American? is a final theme that runs through both books. Like the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, this question extends back to the nation’s origins and has received an array of different answers depending on who is doing the asking, the concern prompting the question, the voices brought into the conversation, the metric or yardstick used to make the determination, and whether the question is being asked from inside or outside the United States. It is, of course, a deeply consequential question, not only for the subjective relation of individuals to the nation but for the relations of citizens to immigrants and to each other as well as to the state.

Both Schneider and Fox find the question embedded in Americanization programs that, in Fox’s story, effectively wrote Mexicans out of the ranks of potential citizens. Schneider, too, finds the meaning of Americanization contested and differentiated by race and nationality. Americanization began as “a program of formal instruction for European newcomers who shared the reformers’ vision of immigrants as future American citizens, but soon met resistance from its intended audience, and…failed to include Asian, Mexican, and black immigrant groups altogether.”

This failure left “most immigrants to negotiate this process on their own, both as individuals and members of ethnic communities.” Immigrant-led Americanization took place “in a wide variety of settings” including workplaces and dance halls, churches, and voluntary associations and often happened “in ways that only partially reflected the wishes of Americanizers.” Americanization, which began as a movement to standardize the question of what it meant to be an American, ended by opening up an array of new definitions, leaving it more unsettled, and more interesting, than ever.

Crossing Borders will not startle scholars of immigration history with new insights and interpretations. It will provide them with both a heuristic framework for integrating specialized studies and a thickly documented account of immigrant experience on the ground differentiated by gender, nationality, and race. And it will prove immensely useful as an accessible, interesting, frequently arresting introduction to immigrant history. Three Worlds of Relief is a game changer. It will force scholars of both immigration and welfare to revise their interpretations and to connect them to each other. And it provides authoritative ammunition with which to blow up the simplistic and destructive caricatures of American history in which European immigrants made it on their own without a helping hand from government.


Michael B. Katz’s most recent book is Why Don’t American Cities Burn? With Mike Rose, he is co-editor of the forthcoming Public Education Under Siege.

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