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Defectives in the Land

Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

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.

192 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Disability Studies

History: American History

History of Science


Sociology: Medical Sociology, Social History


“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

“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

“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

“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

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

“In this slim volume, Douglas C. Baynton forcefully and convincingly argues that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, U.S. immigration law and policy had as its core purpose the exclusion of “defective” immigrants who failed to meet eugenic standards of physical, mental, and moral fitness. In doing so, he successfully challenges standard historical interpretations. . .It is a “must read” for historians of immigration.”

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

Table of Contents


1 Defective
2 Handicapped
3 Dependent
4 Ugly


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