Moving Across Borders

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The US heavily regulated the movement of peoples from its territories. Issued by the War Department Division of Customs and Insular Affairs, this document dictated how immigration officials managed Puerto Ricans coming to America. Courtesy of University of Illinois via HathiTrust.

With their land now part of the US, the people of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines found borders more permeable. Just as intrepid Americans travelled across the territories in search of new adventures, natives and long-time residents began moving to the mainland.

Hawaii was an especially popular hub for in-migration during American imperialism. The islands had a distinct and diverse population, thanks in large part to the sugar industry. Demand for the sweetener skyrocketed during the Civil War, prompting plantation owners to actively recruit laborers from Asia. When the US annexed the islands in 1898, it bestowed national status to native Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese. Many moved West. For Chinese workers, this was especially beneficial, as the Chinese Exclusion Act passed a few years prior in 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from outside the US. Hawaiian-born, or at the very least naturalized, Chinese could negotiate entry. Puerto Rico similarly provided a new channel to the US from the Caribbean. In 1910, less than 2,000 Puerto Ricans lived on the mainland; by the 1930s, more than 40,000 Puerto Ricans had migrated, and most lived in New York City.

Imperial borders provided a new, if not heavily regulated, space for peoples across the Pacific and Caribbean to imagine and pursue new lives as Americans.