[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 the specific contexts for and broader implications of a particularly xenophobic 1930s law.
The anti-Filipino prejudice that developed in America across the first few decades of the 20th century is perhaps even more egregiously hypocritical than racism always already is in a nation founded upon “all men are created equal.” After all, throughout this period the US was occupying the Philippines (and for much of it fighting a war against Filipino rebels seeking independence from that imperial occupation), which meant that the tens of thousands of Filipinos who immigrated to the US during the period were likely fleeing a conflict of our own creation and definitely moving to a nation of which they were already part. Moreover, many of those Filipino arrivals contributed immeasurably to their new nation, from military heroes like Vicente Lim to community activists like Agripino and Florence Jaucian. Yet despite those realities (if not, indeed, because of them) anti-Filipino racism emerged as a prominent national force during these same decades, one that culminated in numerous hate crimes and acts of racial terrorism (such as the horrific 1930 Watsonville, California “riots”) and, most relevantly for this week’s series, in a pair of interconnected, xenophobic 1930s laws: 1934’s Tydings-McDuffie Act and 1935’s Filipino Repatriation Act.
The Repatriation Act was a particularly telling reflection of the strength of these anti-Filipino sentiments, as it revealed that Congress was willing to grant the Philippines eventual independence (again, a concept against which the US had not too long before fought a 15-year war) in exchange for the “repatriation” of all Filipino Americans back to the islands. But the Tydings-McDuffie Act was even more egregious for one particular reason: it was quite possibly illegal. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Filipino immigrants were not part of the “Asiatic Barred Zone” created by the Immigration Act of 1917, because they could not be—since the Philippines were a US territory/colony at the time, Filipino nationals could not be restricted from coming to the United States. But by the 1930s, giving in to the increasing anti-Filipino sentiments, Congress sought to impose such a restriction nonetheless, and found a backdoor way to do so: agreeing to grant the Philippines independence in 1945 and then claiming that this future independent status made it legal to immediately restrict Filipino immigration to 50 arrivals per year (a quota so small as to make this an exclusion act by another name). I suppose if Congress passes a law that makes it by default “legal,” but this particular law at best created a loophole and at worst made an end run around both the Constitution and legal traditions.
So the Tydings-McDuffie Act reflects the strength and sway of such xenophobic sentiments—but it also and perhaps even more importantly exemplifies the ways in which immigration laws have been both created and manipulated in service of such exclusionary attitudes. I’ve argued since at least my Chinese Exclusion Act book that one of the most pernicious American myths is the narrative that our immigration laws have ever represented a set of “rules” which arrivals could “choose” to follow. But over time I’ve come to understand even more clearly that those laws were not just nonexistent (at first) and then created in arbitrary, haphazard, and discriminatory ways, although both those things are true and significant. Instead, perhaps the most fundamental truth of virtually every American immigration law (with the partial exception of the 1965 Act, on which more tomorrow) is that they had much less to do with immigration and much more to do with enforcing and extending an exclusionary narrative of American identity. That doesn’t mean that they don’t also create various systems that affect other (and often all) groups of immigrant arrivals, but such effects are secondary to the fundamental, exclusionary purpose of most of these laws. A stark and crucial truth revealed with especial clarity by the Tydings-McDuffie Act.
Last law and stage tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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