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Over the past few decades, historians have enriched our understanding of the concept and experience of citizenship in United States history. The historiography shares some common features. Narratives of citizenship and immigration tend to be progressive: that is, they demonstrate the ever-widening circle of inclusion of “others” over time (think, for example, of histories of married women’s property rights, the civil rights movement, or the immigration acts from 1924 to 1965). Despite this commonality, for the most part, histories of citizenship and immigration have really been histories of citizenship or immigration: even though these terms are usually uttered together as a phrase, the scholarship tends to be divided into those who study “second-class citizens” – that is, those who were born in the United States but excluded from various rights and obligations, including racial and ethnic minorities and women – and those who study the foreign-born.

Kunal Parker’s compelling book, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600-2000, upends the division that is commonplace in the study of citizenship “or” immigrants. He challenges what he perceives as a false dichotomy between foreigners and non-foreigners in the extant literature. His central claim is that histories of citizenship and immigration are tightly linked: that territorial insiders and territorial outsiders – that is, those born here and those not – have been subjected to similar processes of regulation, rejection, exclusion, and removal throughout American history. As he writes, at various points in our history, women, blacks, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans have all been “rendered foreign,” sharing more in common with territorial outsiders – or so-called “aliens” – than with those who were native-born. In other words, the experience of foreignness was not limited to those who were foreign-born. Parker is not the first to demonstrate the interconnectedness of territorial outsiders and insiders, but his book provides a comprehensive frame, making the most successful argument to date for this reconceptualization.

The book aspires to be a concise synthesis of immigration and citizenship law over four centuries. This is an ambitious goal, one that Parker meets successfully. This is a synthesis that has a point of view and is driven by a conceptual framework. As such, it does not attempt to be comprehensive. Notably less prominent in the narrative are the voices and actions of immigrants and minorities themselves. The focus instead is on the architecture of exclusion: the state, local, and federal laws and policies that recreated foreignness in various guises. The evidence supporting the argument is voluminous: the book charts a wide range of powerful forces that pushed in various ways to render citizens as foreigners, and gives many specific examples (restrictions on the right to travel for poor people, Native American relocation, loss of citizenship for women married to foreigners, Japanese internment, and Mexican repatriation, to name a few). Parker concludes with an excellent bibliographic essay that supplements the text.

The first chapters of the book draw on a wealth of sources to demonstrate that the legal status of many native-born residents was strikingly similar to that of foreigners. During the colonial and early national periods, a majority of native-born residents shared the same legal disabilities as aliens, including an inability to own property and vulnerability to state powers of removal and exclusion. The latter chapters of the book show that, beginning in the twentieth century, the experiences of insiders and outsiders began to diverge: as the nation developed a strong formal definition of citizenship, aliens lost legal status. As the boundaries of citizenship hardened over time, the gap between alien and citizen widened. Rather than an upward progressive line of expansion in rights for all, there were diverging patterns between citizen and alien. This insight helps to contextualize the draconian treatment of immigrants in American law today, pushing against a more familiar – and, Parker would argue, less accurate – narrative of inclusion and expansion of rights.

Importantly, Parker shows that the narratives of insider and outsider were mutually constitutive: a strong, legally bounded definition of citizenship meant that something, and someone, needed to be on the outside of that category. This is a powerful illustration of the ways that citizenship becomes, to quote Rogers Brubaker, “both an instrument and an object of [social] closure.”1 Ultimately, Parker makes a convincing argument that one cannot tell the story of citizenship without the story of immigration. We cannot understand the growth of the federal immigration bureaucracy without understanding the demise of slavery; we cannot make sense of the development of deportation law without understanding the vast regime of local settlement laws that excluded the poor – both citizen and noncitizen – from communities; and we cannot understand the rise of guest worker programs after World War II without understanding the expansion of rights, including workplace protections, to formerly vulnerable citizens of color. This insight into the connectedness of these narratives across the long arc of American history is a key contribution, making the book required reading for those who study citizenship and immigration in the United States.

Making Foreigners is a masterful history that changes the way we think about multiple fields. Reading the book in 2017, one cannot help but reflect on how these dynamics of exclusion are still alive and well in our current era. These mechanisms of rendering citizens as foreigners have not disappeared but instead have taken on new guises. A retrospective look at Donald Trump’s campaign provides a seemingly never-ending list of examples relevant to the book’s core argument: the birther movement, the threat to build a border wall, the demeaning of women, the portrayal of blacks as living in “hell,” the attack on a Mexican-American judge, the attack on a Muslim-American veteran and his family. After reading Parker’s book, one sees all these examples differently, not as throwbacks to an outmoded era or rantings of an unhinged politician, but instead as the latest instances of a political strategy to render foreign whole swaths of people in this country. We have to hope that other narratives will prevail, but we cannot deny that this one will continue to haunt us for years to come.

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  1. Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany 23 (1992).
Cite as: Allison Brownell Tirres, Citizens, Aliens, and the Architecture of Exclusion, JOTWELL (December 15, 2017) (reviewing Kunal M. Parker, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600-2000 (2015)),