Defectives in the Land Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics
by Douglas C. Baynton
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-36416-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-36433-9


Immigration history has largely focused on the restriction of immigrants by race and ethnicity, overlooking disability as a crucial factor in the crafting of the image of the  “undesirable immigrant.” Defectives in the Land, Douglas C. Baynton’s groundbreaking new look at immigration and disability, aims to change this.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Baynton explains, immigration restriction in the United States was primarily intended to keep people with disabilities—known as “defectives”—out of the country. The list of those included is long: the deaf, blind, epileptic, and mobility impaired; people with curved spines, hernias, flat or club feet, missing limbs, and short limbs; those unusually short or tall; people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities; intersexuals; men of “poor physique” and men diagnosed with “feminism.” Not only were disabled individuals excluded, but particular races and nationalities were also identified as undesirable based on their supposed susceptibility to mental, moral, and physical defects.

In this transformative book, Baynton argues that early immigration laws were a cohesive whole—a decades-long effort to find an effective method of excluding people considered to be defective. This effort was one aspect of a national culture that was increasingly fixated on competition and efficiency, anxious about physical appearance and difference, and haunted by a fear of hereditary defect and the degeneration of the American race.


Douglas C. Baynton is professor of history at the University of Iowa, where he also teaches courses in the American Sign Language program. He is the author of Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Iowa.


Defectives in the Land is a supple example of the ways that ‘disability’ has never been a term with a singular or unified meaning, but a term that has been—and continues to be—misused, abused, and exploited by a range of historical actors and institutions for their own ends. By using deliberately loaded conceptual categories—defectivehandicappeduglydependent—to organize his chapters, Baynton’s book opens up the deep interrelationships between disability and familiar analytical categories within immigration history, social history, and political history.”
— David Serlin, University of California, San Diego

“A well-researched, original, and engaging study. Baynton argues that historians of North American immigration have failed to appreciate the importance of disability in the web of immigration restriction. To correct this failure, he maintains that disability joined race, disease, ‘poor physique,’ and poverty to form the ingredients of ‘degeneracy.’ Beautifully written and based on rigorous scholarship, Defectives in the Land will be of great importance and interest to historians of immigration and disability—and beyond.”
— James W. Trent, Gordon College

“In Defectives in the Land, Baynton extends his groundbreaking inquiries into how we’ve arrived at what we think of as disability in contemporary America. Baynton’s is an elegant and incisive analysis of the ways our developing nation evolved cultural practices and attitudes to make ‘disability’ a concept that gave meaning and status to people who have illnesses, industrial injuries, military wounds, or simply the unexpected forms of human variation life presents. Baynton presents us with the familiar history of American modernization as the creation of modern disability, showing us the shifting criteria for what counts a human ‘defect’ and what that means in the lives of people who bear such stigma.”
— Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University

“Focusing on immigrant experiences in New York, Baynton explains how ideas about genetics, disability, race, family life, and employment worked together to exclude an extraordinarily diverse range of men and women from the shores of the US.”
— New Scientist

“Baynton, challenging the conventional historiography, argues that the selective phase of American immigration policy, despite its heavy reliance on the ­sensible-sounding ‘public charge’ standard, was no less discriminatory. During those years, he demonstrates, immigration officials could and did customarily invoke this standard to rule out such ‘defectives’ as women unaccompanied by male providers and members of races with supposed ‘predispositions’ to criminality. Even those with ‘objective’ physical impairments (as the Americans with Disabilities Act would underscore many years later) were incapable of work only if you made certain assumptions about how workplaces were to be structured. So beware ‘reasonable’ justifications for immigration policies, Baynton warns.”
— New York Times


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0000
[disability, terminology, overview, acknowledgements, law]
The introduction discusses the absence of disability from most histories, and its usefulness as an analytical category. It places immigration laws barring disabled persons in a larger context of discriminatory laws concerning disability. It provides an overview of the chapters, a note on terminology, and a paragraph for acknowledgments.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0001
[defective, eugenics, race, selection, restriction, historiography]
Chapter one lays the groundwork for what follows by arguing that the exclusion of defective immigrants during these years was the primary concern of restrictionists. Race was of lesser importance, and was itself defined in terms of defect. The concept of “selection,” adapted from animal breeding and evolutionary science, played a central role in eugenics rhetoric. The eugenic selection of worthy citizens occurred along two main tracks. The one most vividly associated in the public imagination with the eugenics movement was the curtailment of reproduction by undesirable citizens through institutionalization, sterilization, marriage laws, and public education campaigns. Of at least equal importance was the other main track of eugenic selection, the restriction of immigration by means of screening immigrants for defects.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0002
[time, evolution, handicap, retarded, abnormal, degenerate, economy, competition, efficiency, progress]
Chapter two argues that one of the crucial factors in the growing apprehension about disability was a transformation in the meaning of time. Scientific discoveries in geology and evolutionary biology were radically altering concepts of historical time, while the growth of a market economy and industrial production were accelerating already changing perceptions of everyday time. Together, these shifts led to a redefining of disabled people as drags on both evolutionary and economic progress, as socially and economically “inefficient,” and unable to compete or contribute in the “race for life.” In consequence, new terms for disability came into use—“handicapped “retarded,” “abnormal,” “degenerate,” and others that explicitly or implicitly reflected these new ways of understanding time. This emerging understanding of time and disability was an important element in the rhetoric of immigrant restrictionists and helps to explain what motivated them.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0003
[economic, market, industrialization, dependence, independence, burden, competition]
Chapter three examines the economic anxieties consequent upon the spread of a market economy and rapid industrialization, and their effects on how Americans understood the relative values of independence and dependence in relation to disability. In a context of economic insecurity and competition, the ideal of independence became ever more powerful, and disabled persons were increasingly described as dependent and burdensome. What had been primarily a family and community issue earlier in the century, in the new economy became a social problem to be addressed at the level of the state and the nation. The presumption of dependency informed the crafting of policy by lawmakers and its enforcement by immigration officials.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0004
[appearance, immigrants, abnormality, snapshot diagnosis, impairment, heredity, urbanization, city, body, ugly]
Chapter four addresses the growing importance of appearances and first impressions in an increasingly urbanized and anonymous society. The necessity for urban dwellers and employers to make quick appraisals of strangers made them increasingly alert and sensitive to physical appearance and unusual bodies. This was reflected in worries expressed by restrictionists about the appearance of recent immigrants, describing them on the whole as malformed, undersized, oddly shaped, and ugly. Immigration inspectors necessarily relied on first impressions, general appearance, and visible abnormalities as they scanned faces and bodies streaming past them for tell-tale signs of abnormality, making what they termed “snapshot diagnoses.” Many immigrants who had no functional impairment were excluded as “likely to become a public charge,” based solely on impaired appearances, by officials who thought them therefore unemployable as well as undesirable hereditary specimens.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226364339.001.0005
[epilogue, present, visa, discrimination, immigrants, numbers]
The conclusion evaluates the impact of restrictive laws on disabled persons: those who attempted to immigrate to the United States, those who never made the attempt for fear that they would be turned back, and American citizens who were affected by public knowledge of a set of laws and a highly visible screening process that cast them as unworthy of citizenship. It discusses the difficulty of determining how many persons were affected. It provides an epilogue by considering changes in the law since the 1920s, the visa system, and the persistence of aspects of immigration law that discriminate against people with disabilities. (pages - )