Thursday, February 22, 2018
February 22, 2018: Anti-Favorites: The Geary Act
[On Valentine’s Day, I gave a Fitchburg State University Harrod Lecture on my book in progress: Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. These histories and stories couldn’t be more important to me these days, so I wanted to spend the next couple weeks highlighting some of them. Starting with this year’s version of my annual non-favorites series, focused on exclusionary moments from across American history. Add some of your least favorite histories, stories, or figures for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances!]
On the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act that went significantly further.
As I wrote in this piece, the first for my biweekly Considering History column for the Saturday Evening Post, the earliest national immigration laws (such as the 1875 Page Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act) were designed not only to limit future arrivals from particular targeted nations, but also and especially to destroy existing American families and communities. To quote myself for a moment, “Many elements of these discriminatory first immigration laws were created precisely to disrupt both new and existing immigrant American families, and through them communities deemed less desirable or less ‘American.’” The Chinese Exclusion Act in particular, with features such as the stripping of citizenship from all Chinese Americans who had gained it—and with a follow-up law, the 1888 Scott Act, that made it illegal for nearly all Chinese Americans to leave the country and then attempt to return—, was overtly intended to make it nearly impossible for the more than 100,000 current Chinese Americans to remain in the United States.
The Exclusion Act was originally created to be in effect for ten years, but it was extended for another decade by the 1892 Geary Act. Yet the Geary Act did not simply extend the policy of exclusion and its existing corollaries; it added another, far more insidious and destructive new policy as well. Section 6 made it “the duty of all Chinese laborers within the limits of the United States … to apply to the collector of internal revenue of their respective districts, within one year after the passage of this act, for a certificate of residence,” and noted that any laborer who did not do so within one year of the law’s passage would be determined to be illegally present in the United States and could be deported. Moreover, in order to secure such a certificate “to the satisfaction of the court” in cases where their identification was absent or questioned, these Chinese Americans would require the support of “at least one credible white witness,” making clear how closely this policy of identification papers was tied to an overtly white supremacist vision of American identity.
Given the role that documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses have come to play in 20th and 21st century American life, the Geary Act’s creation of the “certificate of residence” document for Chinese Americans might not seem quite as dramatic as it in fact was in the late 19th century, when such collective documentation was largely unheard of and represented a dramatic federal invasion into the lives and communities of these Chinese Americans. Yet even in later eras when federal documents became more common, there would of course remain a world of difference between documents shared by all Americans and ones overtly intended to identify members of a particular community as distinct from—and really outside—the rest of the American community. The certificate of residence did just that, marking these Chinese Americans as fundamentally separate from—and, given that “credible white witness” line among other factors, clearly lesser than—their fellow Americans. In a very real way, then, the Geary Act sought to exclude Chinese Americans more than any of the era’s other discriminatory laws; fortunately, as with all of my week’s focal moments and exclusionary efforts, it did not succeed at doing so.
Last anti-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other anti-favorites you’d highlight?