Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Nasaw

Subject Categories

Political Science | Public Policy


citizenship; federalism; immigration regulation; New York; nineteenth century; state development


From 1847 to 1890, a state authority--not a federal one--oversaw the entry of most immigrants arriving in the United States. The New York State Board of the Commissioners of Emigration supervised the landing of over eight million newcomers in nation's busiest entry point, the Port of New York, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Most were processed at the Board's Castle Garden Emigrant Depot in Battery Park, which opened in 1855. This study demonstrates why and how New York State developed a complex regulatory regime well before the federalization of immigration authority in 1882.

The establishment of this state immigration agency marked a watershed in governmental practices surrounding immigrants, but one that had little to do with exclusion. Many historians of immigration regulation have depicted the development of exclusionary capacities as the hallmark of modern regulation. The Emigration Board, however, points to other possibilities. It developed many of the administrative practices and capacities that would be taken up by the succeeding federal regime, but at the same time, it operated upon a very different vision of government's role vis a vis immigration: not one of restriction, but of aid and support. The Board sought to alleviate anxieties that immigrants would become public burdens, it rationalized the system of immigrant transportation into the interior, and it successfully combated the rampant exploitation of newcomers in the Port of New York. By shedding light on this more inclusive model of immigration regulation from the American past, this study destabilizes the long-held idea that restriction served as the foundation upon which modern immigration control in the US was built.