Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship
Within the United States there is a long history of immigration and citizenship law and policy being shaped by the idea that certain immigrant populations are a threat to American society. Such ideas justified the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the enactment of new deportation grounds in 1917, and the adoption of national origin quotas in 1924. The repeal or revision of these laws has required discrediting the immigrant threat narratives justifying them. Immigrants have done this by demonstrating their respectability—their commitment and adherence to mainstream American values, norms, and practices. Scholars in the humanities and the social sciences have thoroughly interrogated the politics of respectability as a strategy for responding to social, economic, and legal exclusion, but legal scholars have been slow to examine it as a strategy for responding to exclusion in immigration and citizenship law. This article addresses this gap in the literature by examining the use, success, and limitations of respectability narratives through a case study of the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This article identifies the substantive components of respectability narratives, how respectability narratives are deployed, and the limitations of this strategy to actually change perceptions about the subjects of immigrant threat narratives. The continued reliance on respectability narratives by those opposed to the recent immigration-related Executive Orders, by DREAMers, and by other advocates for a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized migrants highlights the persistence of this strategy and the need for analyzing its effectiveness.