The recent decision of the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges has reminded us of the significance of citizenship and family in American history. As in the history of gender and sexuality in the United States, few things are more important than citizenship and the notion of family unity in American immigration history. More than in the past, it might be fair to say, these topics shape the debate over immigration today. If the law demands the deportation of undocumented immigrant parents, what would happen to their American-born children who are citizens of the United States? Do they have to leave their own country with their parents, or do they have to find ways to live without their deported parents? Neither option sounds ideal. Perhaps the experience of Nellie Wilkie shows us what should be prioritized in American immigration policy.
Nellie Wilkie first came to the United States from Scotland with her husband and their child in 1886. The immigrant family settled in Plainfield, New Jersey, where she gave birth to their second child. Having become too destitute to support themselves in Plainfield, the family returned to Scotland in August 1889. Within a month of their return to Glasgow, Nellie’s husband deserted her. Believing that her husband went to the United States, Nellie, with their first and American-born second children, took the steamship State of Indiana to cross the Atlantic once again.
Arriving in New York City on September 26, 1889, Nellie went through routine inspection by immigration officials at the Castle Garden landing station in lower Manhattan. Her previous stay in Plainfield did not change her status as an alien passenger who needed to pass entry examination for admission to the United States.
Upon the inspection, the Collector of Customs at the port of New York found that Nellie was “in destitute circumstances.” He then decided to detain Nellie and her children at an immigrant hospital on Ward’s Island on the East River as paupers who would be sent back to Scotland under the federal Immigration Act of 1882.
Nellie Wilkie could have been a simple addition to the list of excluded foreigners, but her American-born child made her case complicated. While denying Nellie and her children admission for the moment, the customs officer was not entirely certain if he could prohibit a native-born American citizen from landing in the United States and send the child to a foreign country. Nellie was an alien pauper who could lawfully be returned to Scotland, but could a citizen of the United States be banished with the immigrant mother? Realizing that the matter belonged to higher authority, the customs officer requested instructions from the Department of the Treasury, which was then charged with supervising issues of immigration to the United States.
In response, the Treasury Department reached a remarkable decision for Nellie Wilkie. In the first place, a native-born citizen could not be sent out of the country. If Nellie had to go back, her exclusion could be done only by “separating it [the citizen child] from its guardian by nature.” But it was not “the intention of Congress to sever the sacred ties existing between parent and child, or forcibly banish and expatriate a native-born child for the reason that its parent is a pauper.” Accordingly, the Treasury Department instructed the customs collector to admit Nellie and her children.
The case of Nellie Wilkie was not a one-time exception. A year later, the Treasury Department opposed the possible deportation of two Irish immigrant women on the grounds that they had native-born children who were “American citizens, under the natural guardianship of their mothers.” Considerations of the deportability of immigrant mothers, the department decided, “cannot affect the rights of their children since born on American soil and under the jurisdiction and protection of the United States.”
American immigration policy in the late nineteenth century, as a whole, was becoming increasingly restrictive and rigid. The federal government had suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers since 1882. General immigration legislation banned the admission of prostitutes, paupers, people with mental illness, criminals, and contract laborers. The new immigration act passed in 1891 would add to the excludable category several more groups, such as people with contagious diseases and people likely to become public charges. Also, it would be naïve to ignore the racial status of Wilkie and the Irish women as white, which must have helped them draw more sympathy from the Treasury Department than non-European immigrants would have in a similar situation.
Nevertheless, the exemption of Nellie Wilkie from exclusion has important implications for our view of American immigration policy. It signified the Treasury Department’s recognition of family unity and parental protection as inalienable rights of American citizens. By extension of this recognition, the Department also allowed for the humane treatment of foreigners otherwise excludable or deportable from the country. In permitting Wilkie to stay in the United States with her American-born child, the department made it clear that citizens’ right to family unity and parental guardianship, not mechanical adherence to immigration law, should receive primary consideration. Whether the parent was an excludable pauper or, to put it in a more plausible scenario today, a deportable undocumented immigrant, “the sacred ties existing between parent and child” must be preserved.
In the face of the present debate over deportation law and the rights of undocumented immigrants and their citizen children, the experience of Nellie Wilkie suggests that citizenship and family unity, and the ensuing humane treatment of noncitizens, could operate as guiding principles in American immigration policy. As a presidential candidate accumulates political capital with bigotry and intolerance against immigrants, the story of Nellie Wilkie sends us a message that inclusion and humanitarianism used to be part of the policy of the United States.