“Undesirable aliens” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An essential irony of U.S. immigration history has been the propensity of Americans to stigmatize members of certain groups and categories. Although the types of immigrants who have been denigrated have changed from era to era, a fundamental cause for their stigmatization has generally been some form of fear, such as fear of loss of hegemony by the majority groups, fear of cultural change, or fear of criminal behavior.

Unlike some countries, such as the Philippines, the United States does not have a legal definition for “undesirable alien.” In America, the concept of undesirable aliens derives from popular, not legal parlance, primarily in journalism and in the rhetoric of speakers and writers opposed to immigration by members of certain groups. The closest equivalent in law, one that turns up in statutes and court cases having to do with immigration, naturalization, and Deportation;of “undesirable aliens”[undesirable aliens]deportation, is the term “undesirable resident.” However, even this term seems to lack a clear definition. Moreover, it might be applied to native-born citizen as well as foreigners."Undesirable aliens"[Undesirable aliens]Noncitizens;deportation of"Undesirable aliens"[Undesirable aliens]Noncitizens;deportation of[cat]STEREOTYPES;"Undesirable aliens"[cat]SUBVERSIVE AND RADICAL POLITICAL MOVEMENTS;"Undesirablealiens"[cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;"Undesirable aliens"

Outside the legal community, the term “undesirable aliens” has traditionally been leveled against a wide range of groups for an equally wide range of reasons, with race and religion perhaps prompting its most frequent application. For example, from the days of the early republic through the early twentieth century, French, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants were often stigmatized simply because many of them were Roman Catholics. Inevitably, religious intolerance led to sadly ironic mistakes, such as U.S. attacks on French Huguenot immigrantsHuguenots, whose ancestors had fled to America because they were Protestants weary of living under Roman Catholic rulers.

Discrimination against immigrants based on race has a long legal history in the United States as well. Through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various laws prohibited or severely rigidly restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe and non-European countries. Anti-Chinese sentiment was especially vitriolic, resulting in such discriminatory legislation as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which all but ended immigration from China for decades, and such atrocities as the Snake River Massacre1887 massacre of nearly three dozen Chinese workers at Snake River, Oregon. The perception of nonwhites as “undesirables” also led to some of the most shameful court cases in American history, such as 1922’s [c]Ozawa v. United StatesOzawa v. United States, in which Japanese were declared not to be “white” and the 1923 United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind ruling, in which a World War I veteran of Punjabi origin was denied U.S. citizenship because people from the Indian subcontinent were judged to be neither “white” nor “Caucasian.”

Beyond Race and Religion

Numerous other factors have led certain groups of immigrants to be tagged as undesirable in America. One of the most obvious is the fear of political subversion or sabotage. The first instance of such a fear resulting in legislation happened early in the republic, when tensions between the United States and France moved legislators to pass the [a]Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which allowed authorities to Deportation;of “undesirable aliens”[undesirable aliens]deport noncitizens who were deemed threats to the government.

Anti-immigrant cartoon published in 1913 in which eastern and southern European immigrants are dressed in Japanese kimonos, suggesting that the principle applied to keeping Japanese immigrants out of the country might be used to keep out other undesirables.

(Library of Congress)

Similar worries of officials and the public led to discrimination against World War II[World War 02];and German immigrants[German immigrants]Germans during both World War I and World War II. During the latter conflict, the state of Minnesota;German immigrantsMinnesota passed a law forbidding the speaking of German. However, the most glaring example of fear causing an immigrant population to be seen as “undesirable” because they threatened national security was the Japanese American internmentinternment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Fear of political subversion spread in the aftermath of President McKinley, William[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];assassination ofWilliam McKinley’s assassination in 1901 by a Polish American Anarchistsanarchist. That same fear, refocused on Communismcommunists, increased after World War II during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the early twenty-first century, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, fear of subversion by Islamic militants surged, resulting in acts of prejudice against both aliens and citizens of Middle Eastern descent.

After race, religion, and political persuasion, perhaps the most prominent force that creates circumstances in which members of alien groups come to be perceived as “undesirable” is fear of submersion. In these instances, Americans who see themselves as “mainstream” or “typical” fear the loss of their way of life because of a large influx of immigrants with cultures and folkways different from theirs. For example, Irish and Italian people had been present in small numbers before the American Revolution, but xenophobic attitudes toward them as groups did not emerge on a large scale until large waves of them came, first with the Irish during the Great Irish Famine during the mid-nineteenth century and then when similar economic disasters befell Italy in the latter half of the century. Only after these groups appeared in great numbers did anti-Irish and anti-Italian rhetoric appear and violence occur: for example, the notorious signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” in windows of businesses and the slaying of eleven Italian Americans in the streets of New Orleans in 1890 because of their suspected but totally unproven connection to the killing of a local police chief. Likewise, much xenophobic propaganda about Latinos stresses the large number of recent immigrants and feeds on the fear that“Anglo” culture will be subsumed and English will be replaced by Spanish."Undesirable aliens"[Undesirable aliens]Noncitizens;deportation of

Further Reading
  • Bernard, William, Carolyn Zeleny, and Henry Miller, eds. American Immigration Policy. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969. Thorough review of U.S. immigration legislation, including discriminatory laws and rulings.
  • Curran, Thomas J. Xenophobia and Immigration, 1820-1930. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Provides a wealth of detail on one of the most colorful periods of immigration in America and the negative stereotypes that members of various immigrant groups faced.
  • Dalla, R. L., John Defrain, Julie Johnson, and Douglas A. Abbott, eds. Strengths and Challenges of New Immigrant Families. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008. Interesting collection of essays on how immigrant families cope with such problems as negative stereotyping.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. One of the best books on the subject of the role of ethnicity in immigration history.
  • Vellos, Diana. “Immigrant Latina Domestic Workers and Sexual Harassment.” American University Journal of Gender and the Law 407 (Spring, 1997): 414-418. The first four pages of this article contain a pithy summary of the history of discrimination against various immigrant groups in America.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

American Protective Association


Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Criminal immigrants


Infectious diseases

“Moral turpitude”


Categories: History