Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Immigration Part 3: The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Racist History of Immigration Restrictions

This post is part of my Immigration Series. Please read the introduction, particularly the disclaimer.


In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.


The year 1882 was a watershed year in US immigration policy. It was birthed in vicious racism, and would set the stage for an expressly racist immigration policy from that point forward. The assumptions and arguments contained in that law are still used today whenever we discuss immigration policy. Nothing really has changed other than exactly whichshithole countries” we are determined to prevent immigration from.

However, 1882 was by no means the beginning of racial animus or racist rhetoric regarding immigration. Rather, every generation of immigrants has tried to exclude the next, and recycled the same tired tropes and slanders about the next wave.

Just for a taste, read my post from last St. Patrick’s Day about the anti-Irish rhetoric of the 1800s, which mirrors the anti-Latino and anti-Muslim rhetoric of our present day.

Still, 1882 is the year that the first restrictions on Immigration rather than just Naturalization were enacted. The title of the act is perfectly descriptive:

The Chinese Exclusion Act

Students of history (particularly here in California) are undoubtedly aware of the role that Chinese immigrants played in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. They, more than any other group, did the grueling labor of building a route over the rugged and dangerous Sierra Nevada Mountains here in California. However, despite their amazing accomplishments (among which are the various Chinatowns in cities across California, and the concept of “Chinese Take Out,” which we Californians take for granted), they were hated, slandered, and discriminated against viciously here and elsewhere. (One interesting book that I highly recommend is Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain, which recounts the story of her family from their immigration to the present day. It is inspiring, heartbreaking, and wonderfully human. On a related note, I had the privilege of playing chamber music with a descendent of the Transcontinental builders a number of years back. Her ancestors came to the US before mine did, and yet it took nearly a century before they were granted equal civil rights to those my ancestors enjoyed from the get-go.)

So, the Chinese Exclusion Act was just that. A ban on immigration from China. It was the first of its kind, but it would certainly not be the last.

In fact, every immigration law since that time has had as its express goal to limit or exclude immigrants deemed to come from “inferior races.” The exact countries which are deemed “shithole countries” has changed a good bit over time, obviously. The Irish, Greeks, and Italians are now considered “white,” which they definitely were not in the 1920s, for example. We don’t panic about Catholics like we used to: now Muslims are the bogeymen. And, for reasons which are probably reasonably obvious, certain countries have always been welcome: Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Scandinavians. Except during the world wars, Germans too. Hmm, the so-called “Aryan” nations. Blond hair, blue eyes...must be a coincidence, right?

I’ll just run quickly through the next period of history here.

The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943 - as a result of the fact that China was considered an ally in our war against Japan.

In 1907, the US negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” with the isolationist Japan that no immigrant visas would be issued from that country. (In an interesting development, Hawaii, which was then a territory, was exempt, so hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrated to Hawaii. As a result, Japanese food and culture is endemic to Hawaii - along with Chinese and Polynesian food and culture. It’s a beautiful thing!)

Beginning in 1882, Congress also barred the entry of known criminals and “lunatics,” a restriction that continues today. Not controversial, exactly, but a major change from the previous lack of regulation.

The 1917 Immigration Act

This was the next step in restriction. It is often known as the “Literacy Act,” because of its ban on illiterate (meaning in practice “poor”) immigrants, but is also known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act” because of its ban on Asian immigrants.

But there is more to the story. This act set the stage for much of what we debate about immigration today. And it also sheds light on the racism which undergirds the exclusionary position, even as its proponents try to claim otherwise.

Let’s examine a few things about it.

Rooted in racism.

The 1917 Immigration Act was the brainchild of the Immigration Restriction League, an organization founded by a couple lawyers and a climatologist (!) who had some specific beliefs about immigration.

First, they believed that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were genetically inferior to “Anglo-Saxons,” the term used before Hitler and others coined “Aryans.” Again, people from England, France, Germany, and Scandinavia - the blond haired, blue eyed “ubermensches” that were destined to rule the world.

But wait, there’s more!

The IRL also justified keeping non-Aryans out because of their “inferior culture” which threatened “the American way of life.” They claimed that immigrants (from Southern and Eastern Europe - and Asia) brought with them poverty, crime, and low wages. Does that sound at all familiar? (Tucker Carlson, anyone? Steve Bannon? Stephen Miller? Steve King? Donald Trump?)

The 1917 Immigration act took a couple decades to become a reality. Presidents Taft and Wilson vetoed it until 1917, when the combination of World War I and general “yellow menace” rhetoric combined to push public opinion in favor of restrictions.

It wasn’t just the racist rhetoric surrounding its passage that lingers today, however. Many of the provisions of our current laws reflect those in the 1917 act are now enshrined in some form or another in our current laws.


The most notable of these are the quotas. The 1917 act, for the first time, set a limit on immigration by country (or region.) In this specific case, the limit for immigration from “Aryan” countries was set quite high, with those from Southern and Eastern European countries set far lower. (And for Asian countries, pretty much not at all.)

The intent was expressly to encourage immigration from the “desirable” countries, and drastically lower it from the “undesirable” countries. Hmm, sounds so very much like Le Toupee’s recent question about why we even allow people to come here from “shithole countries” like those in Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador rather than from (Aryan) countries like Norway. It’s really the same thing, isn’t it?

Unsurprisingly, just as Norwegians today aren’t exactly flocking to the US, despite the restrictions and encouragements, immigration from the Aryan nations remained relatively low, while immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe blew past the restrictions by an order of magnitude.

Apparently, immigration is a force that cannot be stopped easily…

The big difference was that now much of that immigration was, for the first time, “ILLEGAL.

Still, however, at the time, enforcement was pretty spotty. A number of industries (tellingly, the agricultural industries in the Western US who depended on Mexican immigrants for labor) objected, leading to a bunch of exceptions carved out of the law. Mexicans in particular were officially excluded from the rules for many jobs, from mining to ag to railroads. And many more simply braved the prohibition and came here anyway, started families, and became part of the fabric of our nation despite the work of racist groups like the Immigration Restriction League, and later, the 2nd Ku Klux Klan, which made opposition to non-Aryan immigration a key component of their political platform.

Literacy/Poverty Tests

The 1917 act was also notable for having the first “literacy” test, designed and intended to keep impoverished, uneducated immigrants out of the country. This too haunts our discussion today, with the current administration openly calling for exclusion of all except for the most educated and wealthy of immigrants. It is the whole basis of a “merit” based policy. The intent now, as then, is to keep those who have the most to gain from immigration out. Completely. No more “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Now, just “winners” are welcome. Those who have already succeeded elsewhere. The oppressed masses, the poor and destitute...well… if they are going to die anyway, they had better do it quickly and reduce the surplus population.

I’ll for now gloss over a few horrific court cases which stripped certain non-whites of citizenship (including Native Americans and Asian Indians), plundering even more land from Native Americans, and generally appeasing White Nationalist groups driven by hatred and fear of non whites. It’s a sordid history, and if you have time, look it up…

I’ll also mention Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, where up to 2 million Mexican Americans - most of whom were American citizens - were forcibly deported to Mexico. You can read your children Esperanza Rising for a quick version, but it is worth reading in greater detail. Again, just like now, there was a strong push to ethnically cleanse the United States of non-whites. Another sordid episode in our history of racism.

There were a few good developments, however. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion act was finally repealed - although quotas for Chinese immigrants remained shockingly low. In 1946, Asian Indians and Filipinos were finally allowed to immigrate again....well, at the low rate of 100 per year...

The next major act, the Immigration act of 1952 officially did away with racial prohibitions, but kept the national quotas in place. Again, most of the slots went to Aryan countries: England, Germany, and now (surprise!) Ireland. I guess the Irish finally got to be “white.” This act also added another modern feature: family-based immigration. (This idea, now ludicrously denigrated as “chain migration” simply gives preference to people who already have relatives here. There is nothing nefarious about it. People who have family here have support systems, and are thus less likely to need public assistance.)

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

This act serves as the basis of the laws we have now. While certain numbers have been tweaked, most of the backbone of the law remains in effect today. I’ll discuss current laws separately in another post, but I do want to mention some things that I believe are relevant.

Senator Ted Kennedy, who was at the time the chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, said about the law, “[T[he bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs." You can see the same concerns here as both in the past (the 1917 Act) and current rhetoric. The fear of a change to the ethnic balance of the US. (Hey there, Steve King!) The euphemism rejecting the idea of letting the poor in. The “immigrants lower our wages” rhetoric. Nothing has changed. In particular, the racially charged nature of the debate remains exactly the same. The anti-immigration crowd now, as it has always been throughout the history of our nation, is concerned about keeping the “inferior races” out of the United States, and keeping us a White Nation™. Every time we have a debate about immigration, the same issues come up over and over, and they can be distilled down to the same old beliefs about the inherent inferiority of some races. And the same belief by each group of immigrants that the next group is somehow different, inferior, and should be kept out.

You can see some other interesting threads here as well. The 1965 act gave priority to “family reunification,” aka “chain migration.” That emphasis has remained in the law - and indeed in the rhetoric on both sides - up until recently, when the GOP swung from a moderately pro-immigration position to full-on white nationalism with the rise of Le Toupee.

Since that time, you can see some minor tweaks. Some provisions for refugees. Some increases in quotas. More detailed exceptions for skilled workers with an employer sponsor. Different vetting for potential terrorists. And so on. But the major provisions of the law remain.

Again, this is a quick tour, not a detailed look at the exact details. Since 1965, however, most of the changes have been relatively minor, and many have been kludges - patches to cover over defects without actually starting fresh and fixing the problems. That has kind of been the American way the last few decades, as consensus on policy has been near-impossible to find. 

I’ll talk more about the current state of the law in a future post.


Let me summarize a bit here, before we move on.

If you were not Chinese, you could immigrate AND become a citizen virtually without restriction prior to 1917. So if your ancestors were white and came here before 1917, there is no way they could have immigrated “illegally” if they tried.

So saying that “my ancestors came here legally” is totally meaningless. Of course they did! There was no other way to come here!

Likewise, if your ancestors were from an “Aryan” nation, chances are that they came here legally without much in the way of restrictions anyway. Except for Germans during WWII, you could get in if you were Western European - and can today. Even today, as a white person, it isn’t that hard to get here legally. However, if you are from Latin America or Asia, and don’t have serious money, well, you don’t really have a line to get in. Might as well forget it…or take your chances coming here “illegally” and hope for the best.

Let’s also be sure we don’t forget this:

From the beginning, immigration restrictions were openly and explicitly based on a belief in racial superiority and inferiority. The laws were enacted as the result of the efforts of openly racist, nativist lobby groups, and were intended to exclude people deemed to be “inferior” due to their race and/or nation of origin. To deny this fact is to fail to understand our problems today.


Just an interesting bit on the history:

Kevin Jennings is the president of the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum currently has an exhibit entitled “Under One Roof,” the story of the refugees and immigrants that came to New York in the aftermath of World War Two. In addition to the LA Times article I linked in the last installment, he recently did an interview on NPR about immigration. One of the things that really stuck with me from that interview is that he has had people walk out of his presentations at the museum and accused him of political propaganda simply for telling the truth that immigration restrictions of the past were motivated by racism. Really. In this age of “alternative facts,” the truth is now “political propaganda.” Good god, we are screwed.

Even in the last few days, discussing immigration with people I know, I have been disappointed by the amount of resistance people have to acknowledging that the current adminstration gives every evidence of being motivated by racism. Or that currently issues like DACA or TPS have become real problems because the current administration seems hell bent on finding ways to evict brown people from the US. Denial runs deep. Really deep.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting series, Tim.

    Some believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and executed because of the anti-Italian sentiment that existed in the early 1900s. I don’t know if the were exonerated posthumously, but they had a lot of supporters at the time.

    I think the Johnson-Reed Act stated preserving American homogeneity as a goal, and thus a reason for quotas.