Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990

Cheryl Shanks
An exploration of how and why public arguments about immigrants change over time—and of the implications for our understanding of national sovereignty


What does it mean to be an American? The United States defines itself by its legal freedoms; it cannot tell its citizens who to be. Nevertheless, where possible, it must separate citizen from alien. In so doing, it defines the desirable characteristics of its citizens in immigration policy, spelling out how many and, most importantly, what sorts of persons can enter the country with the option of becoming citizens.

Over the past century, the U.S. Congress argued first that prospective citizens should be judged in terms of race, then in terms of politics, then of ideology, then of wealth and skills. Each argument arose in direct response to a perceived foreign threat—a threat that was, in the government's eyes, racial, political, ideological, or economic. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty traces how and why public arguments about immigrants changed over time, how some arguments came to predominate and shape policy, and what impact these arguments have had on how the United States defines and defends its sovereignty.

Cheryl Shanks offers readers an explanation for immigration policy that is more distinctly political than the usual economic and cultural ones. Her study, enriched by the insights of international relations theory, adds much to our understanding of the notion of sovereignty and as such will be of interest to scholars of international relations, American politics, sociology, and American history.

Cheryl Shanks is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Williams College.

Praise / Awards

  • "A sophisticated and deeply researched analysis of U.S. immigration policy in the 20th century. . . ."
    —M. F. Jacobson, Yale University, Choice, April 2002
  • "[Shanks] attempts to explain continuity, American sovereignty itself, in the face of the powerful transnational force of immigration that has existed throughout this country's history. The strength of this book is in its presentation of the political, economic, social, and ethical forces that have simultaneously shaped U.S. immigration policy and the American polity itself. Shanks' book is certainly the most thorough treatment that I have seen on this subject. She delves deeply, not only into the legislative debates on who should or should not become an American, but her extensive research also brings to light much of the larger public debate as well. . . . The book is very well written and organized, and immigration scholars and those in related fields will learn a lot from it."
    —Mark Gibney, University of North Carolina, Asheville, Contemporary Sociology, Volume 31: No. 5
  • "Her work not only explains the constancy of sovereignty claims in twentieth-century immigration debates but also proves that immigration policy is a vehicle frequently used by Congress to define and assert sovereignty. Methodologically, Shanks challenges structural theories of international relations by advancing an alternative—and patently rhetorical—approach for understanding the nature and trends of immigration policy reform. More generally, her findings challenge conventional wisdom within contemporary immigration scholarship. Most notably, Shanks complicates the presumption that immigration reforms follow economic downturns. . . . By focusing exclusively on federal immigration ceilings, preferences, and exclusions, Shanks also foregrounds the foreign policy dimensions of immigration reform that typically recede in scholarship on immigration policy."
    Rhetoric & Public Affairs

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 400pp.
  • 12 drawings, 19 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11204-3

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  • $99.95 U.S.

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