Insane Aliens: The Incarceration of Mentally Ill Immigrants in the United States and Mexico, 1880s-1940

How were aliens constructed as mentally ill and incarcerated by doctors and immigration authorities in the US and Mexico in the early twentieth century?

Project Abstract

In the late nineteenth century, anti-immigrant activists in New York and California complained about the large numbers of insane people in their asylums and other charitable institutions. Commissions on lunacy were formed in both states, and by 1904 New York established a Board of Alienists responsible for identifying and deporting insane immigrants. This research project will explore the identification, detention and deportation of immigrants identified as insane by state authorities in New York and California. The targeting of insane aliens for deportation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often resulted in struggles by state and federal governments over who had the authority to deport these immigrants.

More about this project

Nathan Cohen arrived at Ellis Island in 1912 from Brazil. A couple of years later, he was committed to an insane asylum in Baltimore, and he was eventually sent to New York from whence he was deported back to Brazil. Upon arriving in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians said that despite his lengthy residence in Brazil, he was a Russian citizen and they refused him entry. Cohen returned to New York on the same steamer, but he was refused entry in New York and ultimately detained at Ellis Island. The steamship company found it impossible to return Cohen to Russia in the midst of a war, and so he was once again shipped to Brazil and again refused entry and returned to New York where he was denied landing. After a third failed trip to South America, Cohen was on board the steamship, trapped in a liminal space outside of the nation, a virtual stateless individual with no rights. Eventually the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) and the Knights of Pythias (a fraternal order of which he was a member) came to his rescue by sponsoring his entry to the US just fifteen minutes before he was going to be shipped back to South America. Nathan Cohen’s story graphically reveals the way mentally ill immigrants who found themselves stateless were subject to indefinite detention in the US.

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work! Please upgrade today!