While the 1891 and 1893 Immigration Acts established inspection protocols that remained in place for decades, less is known about how US agents initially translated gatekeeping laws into the durable policy directives that had a profound effect on the migration of working-class people. Before the “qualitative” restriction of specific racial, social, and economic conditions transitioned to a period of “quantitative” or enumerated exclusion by the 1920s, the US government had to establish a structure to carry out the work of exclusion, but this early era of qualitative gatekeeping is less understood. Italian encounters with federal agents at Ellis Island show how the 1891 and 1893 laws empowered the administrative state to carry out the work of exclusion shadowed by the banality of bureaucratic decision-making. The records of the short-lived Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians (1894–99), the only outpost of a foreign government allowed to operate in the main processing building on Ellis Island, offers a rare snapshot of the gatekeeping process in its crucial early years. Given that Italians were the single largest ethnic group to be processed at Ellis Island over its sixty-two-year history and the primary target of inspectors in the station’s first decade, their experiences with bureaucratic exclusion illuminate how the United States moved to systematically control working-class migration.

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