Book Review: Disabled Upon Arrival (Timothy Jay Dolmage)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

It may be a perverse serendipity that Jay Timothy Dolmage's Disabled Upon Arrival was released one year into the reign of Donald Trump. Had it appeared several years earlier, despite disability scholar Susan Schweik's endorsement of it as "by far the best work on the subject of eugenics and immigration" and the depth of research It contains, it may have been primarily of interest to those in disability studies. In the current political context, it is a work that should find itself speaking to a much wider audience.

One of the things that may help wider audiences buy into the book but also be a bit misleading for disabilities scholars is that the disability implied in the title is not a literal but a metaphorical one. To be sure, Dolmage does cite instances of disabled immigrants, particularly those perceived as having a mental disability, being discriminated against and/or returned to the country from which they came, but for the most part, in the author's words, "this book is about the disabling and racializing force of anti-immigration rhetoric." In the political climate of the United States today, nothing could be more on target.

In addition to a succinct introduction that is crucial to the understanding of the book, Disabled Upon Arrival is divided into four parts. The first two deal with the history of immigration at two specific places, Ellis Island in the United States and Pier 21 in Canada. The third section addresses the effects of technology, principally photography and visual representation, on immigration. The final section deals with the problem of archiving and representation of the documents that we have in our possession. In an effort to resist the material he presents being collapsed into a single linear narrative, Dolmage suggests that these sections and the subsections within them be viewed as a series of post cards or snapshots that can be viewed in no particular order. He even provides for this by, at times, literally repeating quotes or information that has been given in a previous section but would be necessary to someone who did not approach the book sequentially. A reader whose interest was solely in Canadian history could, therefore, jump right to that section without ado and perhaps get all that they came for from it. Personally, I think that the introduction is key to the book and should be read not only prior to the rest of the book, but once again upon completion so that what seemed to be bare bones originally now has meat attached to it.

As the author of Disability Rhetoric, it is not surprising that Dolmage now brings the skills and experiences acquired in writing that book to Disabled Upon Arrival. If the book's, subtitle, "Eugenics, Imigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability" does not clue the reader in, the "Introduction" states explicitly that this book is principally about the rhetoric of immigration, where rhetoric is defined as "the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication." Anyone in North America who has been following the cries for building a physical wall between the United States and Mexico needs no more concrete explanation of what Dolmage means. What is most chilling is that even if immigrant bans are found unconstitutional and the wall is never built, the rhetorical damage has been done. As Dolmage says, "it means that these bodies, their beliefs and behaviors, become the subject of a very public process of stigmatization." In order to really understand what is happening and what has happened in the past, we need a sense of the rhetorical history of immigration in North American, and it is that thesis that is the book's primary justification for being.

The first rhetorical space Dolmage examines is Ellis Island. He argues that set up in an assembly line fashion in the early twentieth century, it was from the beginning a space where bodies were examined for defects; more specifically they were examined for their differences–the degree to which the in-coming immigrants varied from an idealized population norm. Out of this process, a series of criteria developed increasingly limiting who would be considered acceptable and productive citizens. Ostensibly, this was not tied to race or ethnicity but to whether an immigrant would become a public charge due to inability to work. As a result, those who had a disability or illness were weeded out, even if the poor health was a result of the crowding and sanitary conditions of the ships.

In addition to physical health, mental health was also assessed. Dolmage cites E. H. Mullan's Mental Inspection Guide of 1917: "Should the immigrant appear stupid and inattentive to such an extent that mental defect is suspected, an X is made on the coat at the interior aspect of the right shoulder."

Such inspection processes coincided with the rise of the eugenics movement in the United States in which putatively scientific classification resulted in the Dillingham Immigration Commission's "Dictionary of Races or Peoples" (1911) where races were described in terms of the degree to which they varied from an existent white population. It was widely used by immigration inspectors. Such reports also encouraged resurgence of the politically powerful Immigration Restriction League (IRL) whose co-founder Prescott F. Hall wrote in "Immigration Restriction and Eugenics," "immigration restriction is a species of segregation on a large scale, by which inferior stock can be prevented from diluting and supplanting good stocks." Hall recommended that immigrants be drawn from Nordic stock and that prohibitions be made against admitting immigrants from certain countries. Sound familiar?

In such an environment, single pregnant immigrant women became particular subjects of rhetorical disabling. Not only were they potential charges on the state, but the fact that they were pregnant and could continue to reproduce threatened the idealized gene pool.

One of the most fascinating forms of disabling that Dolmage discusses has to do with the terms "feeble-minded" and "moron," much of which was based upon the photography of Augustus Sherman. Sherman (whose work is discussed in detail in the third section of the book), took a variety of pictures of immigrants documenting the variety of humanity that came through Ellis Island. However, many of his photographs ended up as "Examples of Faces of Feeble-Minded" immigrants in the 1918 Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens. Because the conditions at Ellis Island were so crowded and inspectors had little time to make examinations, these images of immigrants who appearance or bearing were suggestive of feeble-mindedness were used as a tool for quick visual assessment to pull immigrants aside and label them for deportation. Even more incredibly the term "moron" invented by Henry Goddard, was used to strain out immigrants who seemed personable and attractive but who might harbor genes that, when they reproduced, would introduce undesirable traits into the population. Again, this designation tended to be applied much more freely to women.

In the book's second section, Dolmage turns his attention to Canadian immigration history. Though Canada in 2018 appears to have a much more humane immigration policy than the United States, Dolmage argues that it has not always been this way and that Canada has had its own–albeit much less dramatic–Ellis Island. This was Pier 21, located just north of Halifax in Nova Scotia. One could argue that anyone out to prove that racism and ethnic bias existed/exists in Canadian immigration policy is going to be able to find the documentation to support the claim. I'll confess to my ignorance of Canadian history and leave it to readers themselves to determine whether Dolmage gives the Canadian government and people a fair trial. However, there are two Canasian policies the author describes that are interesting in the way that they deviate from what has occurred in the United States – at least in degree, if not in actual fact.

Because Canada did not depend upon African slavery for its economy, it did not have to create either a Biblical justification or pseudo-scientific pretext about mental capacity for why Africans should be allowed in the country but not given the status of equal citizens. Dolmage records, however, that once escaped slaves began heading north, those who wanted to keep Canada "a white man's country" had to come up with some justification for keeping them out. Comparable to the American fronting of the importance of immigrants being able to be a productive member of society, Canadians did an end run with their own pseudo-scientific theories, arguing that bodies that had originated in warm climates would not be suitable for the country. Therefore, in the 1910, the Canadian Immigration Act allowed the government to exclude "immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuitable to the climatic requirements of Canada."

This line of thinking led to a related second policy. In contrast to the current Trump strategy of black-balling immigrants from specific countries and building walls against others, Canadian officials a century ago began stacking the deck by pro-actively going after those countries that they wanted citizens from and doing essentially a dog and pony show. They would bring magic-lantern presentations picturing the beauty and richness of life in Canada and down-play any concerns that prospective citizens might have about the harshness of the climate. (Actually, this is the very same strategy used by the early Virginia aristocracy to recruit colonists who would actually be willing to work.)

Possibly of less interest to the casual reader but of more interest to those in academic scholarship are the final two sections of the book. In the book's third section, "Technologies of Immigration, " Dolmage states, "I will be arguing that the overemphasis on the visibility or visual disability–how it is created and cemented through regimes of vision–is a problem, a historical problem." To avoid being complicit with the visual images that he is critiquing, Dolmage explicitly declines to include the images discussed and relies upon "thick description." Instead, he points to an archive housed on the Ohio State Press website. It is an interesting approach and not one without its risks. If this were an online book with a direct link, it might represent a real choice for readers, allowing those who were interested to click a link and compare their own reactions to the actual visual images the author has described in words. To non-scholars reading a print version of the book, however, it seems to say, "This is where you get off the bus."

The problem that Dolmage turns to in the book's fourth and final content section is that of archiving. To this he explicitly brings his own experience:

"For many years now, I have been doing archival research, looking at the ways that disability was constructed through immigration processes, discourses, artifacts, and images in the perk period of North American immigration, 1900-1925, which was also the peak period of North American eugenics. In this work, and of course throughout the earlier parts of the book I have tried to build on the work of disability historians such as Natalia Molina, Catherine Kudlick, Douglas Baynton, James Trent, and Kim Nielson in situating disability at the very center of North American history. We know that such work takes extreme effort and diligence."

He also adds what has driven him to put in such effort: "disability has been ignored, submerged, and overwritten throughout history and throughout the historical record."

It probably goes without saying that intentionally or not, any attempt at constructing an archival record will reflect the view point of those constructing it. In an archive of immigration history, this is true whether ones attitude is inherently eugenicist in nature as were those at Ellis Island and the current Trump policy or attempting to be fair-minded like the immigration museum at Pier 21 which still has to decide which documents to digitize and which to leave in the shadows. The criticisms of the archive will simply vary depending upon who is doing the viewing.

It is in attempting to address both the submersion of disability and the impossibility of sustaining a singular narrative of immigration history that Dolmage has chosen to develop what he calls a shadow archive, documents that do not attempt to correct history but that run along side and challenge official accounts to reveal the multi-textured phenomenon that immigration history is.

As mentioned, disabilities scholar Susan Schweik praises the book as "by far the best work on the subject of immigration and immigration." That may very well be true. It would be difficult to think of a work that brings together more scholarship and research on the subject or one that examines the material more closely. It would take a willing obtrusiveness to read Disabled Upon Arrival and not feel that greater insight into the history of immigration at Ellis Island or Pier 21 or merely new facts about what occurred there had been gained.

Several years ago in a review of Disability Rhetoric, I made the observation that while the book had much to offer, it was an offering that was inaccessible to the generally intelligent reader who was not already grounded in the rhetoric of disability. With Disabled Upon Arrival, Dolmage has managed to find a way to speak to a broader audience. Many of the academic buzzwords that fence out the merely interested reader are still there–and perhaps in the realm Dolmage is working one has to render unto Caesar - but he has managed through the intrinsically interesting nature of his subject and his choice of material to create a book that will hold the attention of most readers who would be likely to pick up a nuanced book on immigrtion in the first place.

If there is one criticism I have of Disabled Upon Arrival it is that Dolmage seems to begrudge giving credit to any political leaders who have tried to make concrete improvements in immigration laws. He states: "We can make an effort to challenge the spectacles and interpellations of these borders and these borders technologies," yet, he seems intent on not actually allowing credit to those who try. I'll give three examples. Despite the fact that Justin Trudeau has "publicly and personally welcomed Syrian refugees" and been awarded the Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations–an accomplishment that the citizens of most countries would be glad to claim - Dolmage portrays him as self-congratulatory and proceeds to list the areas where Trudeau falls short. Barack Obama put the Dreamers Act in place in face of growing animosity from many Americans towards those who came across the Mexican border illegally, but rather than credit him with an achievement he criticizes Obama for not going far enough. Finally, in order to make a point about how Canadian official Peter Bryce deported a young immigrant woman, Dolmage buries in a footnote the fact of Bryce's subsequent extraordinary work in revealing the horrible conditions and maltreatment in native residential schools to the detriment of his own career. If Dolmage is willing to quote with approval the many academic scholars who are critical of how immigration has historically played out in the country but who have not actually brought about concrete changes themselves, it seems a bit churlish to attack those who have tried and actually accomplished something. In fairness to Dolmage, though, this is a syndrome that seems to pervade disability studies generally.

Despite this minor shortfall, Disabled Upon Arrival is an important book. It is an unfortunate reality that those who need to read this book the most are the least likely to do it. Nevertheless, from those in disability studies and others with a concern for diversity and multi-culturalism, Dolmage's latest book will receive a much deserved welcome.

Title: Disabled Upon Arrival
Editor: Timothy Jay Dolmage
Publisher: The Ohio State University Press
Publication Date: 2018


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).