Tuesday, February 4, 2020
February 4, 2020: Immigration Laws: The Chinese Exclusion Act
[On February 5, 1917 Congress passed the influential and exclusionary Immigration Act of 1917. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other stages across the history of immigration laws, leading up to a weekend post on where our laws and narratives stand in 2020.]
On how my thoughts about a foundational, exclusionary law have evolved over time.
It’s quite fitting that the 7th post I wrote for this blog focused on the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftermaths; I don’t know that any historical topic has been more consistently central to my AmericanStudying career, as illustrated by that post, my third book, the chapter on the Chinese Exclusion Act era in my recent fifth book, this other online piece, these two early posts for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column…well, you get the idea. There have been various through-lines across all those pieces and works, but I’d say the most prominent and consistent can be found in the very first sentence of that November 2010 blog post: “There are a couple of particularly salient reasons why I wish we included the Chinese Exclusion Act a lot more fully in our national narratives.” If my number one, overarching goal for my AmericanStudies public scholarship is expanding our collective memories (which, spoiler alert, it is), then adding the Chinese Exclusion Act to those memories has been my most longstanding case study toward that objective.
Which makes it ironic, but also I hope exemplary, that my own thinking about the Act has significantly shifted over this decade of remembering and analyzing it. At the time of my Chinese Exclusion Act book, and throughout the 18 months or so of book talks that followed it, I focused in many ways on the Act as the first national immigration law, and as one that helps us understand the fundamentally xenophobic and exclusionary nature of those laws as they developed. I also made the case in those talks that the Exclusion Act era (which could be seen as extending from 1882 through the 1965 Immigration Act, about which more in a few days) was a blip on the radar screen, the one period in American history when our national policies sought (more and more over those decades, especially after the 1920s Quota Acts turned exclusion into the overarching frame for national immigration policy) to limit our foundational diversity rather than extend and amplify it. Given that all Americans over 50 (at that time; over 60 now) grew up in that era, that frame seemed to me also to help us understand why so many older Americans use phrases like “I want my country back” (and, now, “Make America great again”) as a shorthand for exclusionary visions of the nation.
I think there’s still a lot of value to those different frames for and analyses of the Exclusion Act and its era, but over the last few years my perspective on the law’s central goals has changed quite a bit. Of course the law was intended to affect future arrivals, indeed to make it impossible for immigrants from China (and then, gradually, other Asian nations as well, leading up to the 1917 law I’ll discuss tomorrow) to come to the United States. But I would now argue that it was much more fully intended to affect current residents of the US, indeed to destroy the longstanding, deeply rooted, and sizeable Chinese American community (there were more than 102,000 Chinese Americans documented on the 1880 Census, the first to ask about national origin). As I traced in this Saturday Evening Post column, numerous aspects of the Exclusion Act and its follow-up laws can only be understood through the lens of that goal: stripping citizenship from those Chinese Americans who had been able to gain it; making it illegal for Chinese Americans to leave the US and then attempt to re-enter; requiring all Chinese Americans to go through the onerous and un-Constitutional step of carrying “residency papers” at all times or risk arrest and deportation. These were steps intended to destroy an existing community, and defining the Exclusion Act’s central purpose thusly makes it even more foundational as an exclusionary, white supremacist document.
Next law and stage tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?