June 16, 2015

This resource presents political cartoons from four different national contexts. Its goal is to further understandings of the ways in which nation-states affect an individual's ability to move freely around the world.


"Gatekeeping" refers to the control that nation-states exert over their boundaries. National boundaries might be metaphorically compared to fences. Sometimes this is literally the case, for example the fence spanning sections of the border between the United States and Mexico. The means of crossing a fence is by entering or exiting through a gate. Thus, gatekeeping refers to the practice of national governments openning or closing their "gates" (or portals of entry) to migrants.

Gatekeeping highlights the role of law and the policies for migration. Migrants do not move freely around the world when they encounter structures that are set up by states or international bodies. Due to those structures, the strategies by which migrants avert border restrictions provide evidence of their agency. The politicization of words like "illegal immigrant" mask those power struggles that take place between migrants and controlling mechanisms of the state.

The notion of gatekeeping also challenges myths that celebrate immigrant past while portraying contemporary immigration as threatening. Although current debates condemn uncontrolled immigration, states have a long history of monitoring their borders. In the case of the United States, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred nearly all immigration from China. Australia's White Australia policy similarly enacted governmental legislation and policies between 1901 and 1973 that restricted the entrance of non-white immigrants.


The following four cartoons depict historical examples of gatekeeping. They date from the turn of the 20th century and concern gatekeeping in four different national contexts.

  1. Political cartoon from Vancouver newspaper Saturday Sunset contrasting European and Chinese immigration to western Canada.
    Hawkins, N. H. "The Same Act Which Excludes Orientals Should Open Wide the Portals of British Columbia to White Immigrations." Saturday Sunset (Vancouver), 24 August 1907.
    The same act which excludes Orientals should open wide the portals of British Columbia to white immigration.
  2. Cartoon printed in the Chicago magazine The Ram's Horn showing Uncle Sam encountering an Eastern European Jewish immigrant at a gate to the United States.
    Beard, Frank. "The Immigrant: The Stranger at Our Gate." The Ram's Horn (Chicago), 25 April 1896.
    Uncle Sam stands in the doorway of the United States of America, holding his nose at the immigrant burdened with "Superstition," "Sabbath Desecration," "Poverty," "Disease," "Anarchy," and more.
  3. Cartoon from the West Australian newspaper Western Mail depicting Italian immigrant contract laborers disembarking in Australia. 
    Western Mail (Perth, West Australia), 1904.
    The Italian Immigrant Question: Westralia speaks to immigrant fresh off the boat, "I don't mind the best of you, but you must come unshackled [without a cheap contract]."
  4. Cartoon from the Argentinian magazine Caras y Caretas depicting a government official traveling to Europe in order to promote immigration to his country.
    Caras y Caretas VI (Argentina), 10 January 1903.
    Argentina (man) says he's here to pick up immigrants, but wants no agitators/revolutionaries/strikers/communists... Europe (woman) responds that she knows what he wants: only bankers and archbishops.

Discussion Questions

  1. How are immigrants depicted in each cartoon? Consider characteristics such as race, gender, class, and age.
  2. How are the symbols of the nation-state(s) depicted in each cartoon? Again, consider characteristics like race, gender, class, and age.
  3. What do the cartoons suggest about the politics of immigration? What editorial statement is each cartoonist attempting to make about popular conceptions of immigration?

Suggested Readings

Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Fitzgerald, John. Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007.

Guiraudon, Virginie, and Christian Joppke, eds. Controlling a New Migration World. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006. Revised edition. Toronto: Tonawanda, 2007.