On May 29, 2013, co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a very promising post series to explore the origins of immigration restrictions, the rationales used when introducing them, and how they were gradually modified into their present form. His first post in the series took an in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first large-scale restriction of immigration to the United States after nearly a century with nearly unrestricted migration. Chris went into considerable detail into the rationales proffered for the law, and found them flawed in light of both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that would accumulate over the coming decades.
With Chris’s permission, I’m taking this very important series over from him. This post will look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, but from a different angle: how was it implemented? As the United States’ first foray into a systematic control of a border, what legal ambiguities did it give rise to, and how were those resolved? What aspects of the modern immigration control regime, in the US and elsewhere around the world, can be traced to the way these ambiguities were resolved?
Let’s first get an idea of the sort of world that existed at the time.
A different world
Migration back in the day was qualitatively similar to South-South migration today: relatively unregulated and unprotected. But this is part of a broader feature of society back then: goverment was less centralized and far less powerful and all-knowing than it is today:
- Passports did exist, but most people didn’t bother to get them.
- Social Security, and Social Security Numbers, didn’t exist.
- There was no federal income tax.
- Since there was no tax withholding, employers had no federal reporting requirements, and they didn’t have reporting requirements in most states either. In other words, the state didn’t have a reason to record most work activity.
- There was no Green Card, or Green Card-equivalent. Non-citizen permanent residents had no document that directly established that status for them.
- There was no nation-wide interior enforcement for immigration law.
- Entry by land from Mexico and Canada was largely unrestricted.
So what did exist?
- Ports of inspection for people and goods coming by sea, from the Atlantic or the Pacific. These ports were not intended primarily for immigration enforcement, but were mainly used for customs enforcement. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were, as far as I am aware, no designated ports on the West Coast exclusively for immigration enforcement. Angel Island, the main such port, would become active only in 1910. The corresponding port in the East Coast, Ellis Island, would open only in 1892, though there were other immigrant processing stations before that on the East Coast, such as Castle Garden.
- City officials in various cities could act as de facto immigration enforcement. They could ask residents of the area for documentation proving that they were citizens (this would typically involve a birth certificate that would need to match with the city’s records, or a demonstration that the parents were US citizens, or a proof of naturalization). Enforcement would therefore be zealous only in places where the natives and the officials representing them cared enough about the matter. In practice, therefore, immigration enforcement followed the principle of subsidiarity — even though the legislation was determined at the federal level, interior enforcement was largely a local matter.
Racism, citizenism, territorialism, and high versus low skill
All the elements found in the modern border control regime could be glimpsed in the Chinese Exclusion Act as it played out. First off, the act was overtly discriminatory in a racial and ethnic sense. It could be argued that many immigration laws today are racist, albeit in many cases they are not overtly so. But the racial/ethnic component to the Chinese Exclusion Act was both more morally acceptable and palatable and more practically enforceable.
If you are trying to enforce immigration law, that requires a lot of potential violations of civil liberties, not only for the immigrants, but also for people who might be suspected of being immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act explicitly restricted itself only to targeting (a subset of) the ethnic Chinese. This subpopulation was sufficiently distinctive in appearance, customs, and linguistic habits. Thus, the collateral damage inflicted by the law on those not in violation of immigration law was limited to other ethnic Chinese.
In today’s world, it is possible (though still far from easy) to carry out some semblance of border and interior enforcement targeted at potential immigrants that has minimal collateral damage for citizens, without being so explicitly racially targeted. For this, we can thank (or blame) the record-keeping surveillance state that can track people much better. At the same time, it is somewhat harder to use explicit racial/ethnic targeting, because of greater levels of ethnic mixing. People of different national origins no longer look so obviously different, thanks to some degree of global convergence in culture, and also (to a less extent) greater interbreeding leading to many many more intermediate forms of physical appearance.
The racism of the law was therefore necessary for it to get off the ground, and for immigration enforcement to get an early testing bed while leaving the majority of the population unaffected. Just as the income tax started out as a tax on the super-rich and gradually grew to cover a majority of income-earners in the United States (and most other countries) immigration enforcement sharpened its ax on a relatively vulnerable, distinctive, and reviled population before spreading its wings to society at large. As they say, First they came for the Chinese. As history.com puts it:
American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and the Japanese. The Chinese themselves remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.
The second interesting emergent feature of the law, as it came into practice, was its citizenism, in more senses than one. First, as Chris described at greater length in his post, the law was justified in terms of citizenist premises, though there was the occasional nod to how it would be good for China as well to keep all its population within. Second, those Chinese who were already citizens continued to enjoy citizenship — at least in principle. They still were at greater risk of getting into trouble (because they were in the ethnic group suspected of harboring illegal immigrants) and they often couldn’t bring family members in, but they still enjoyed the constitutional rights of citizens. They could leave the country and return as they pleased (provided the officer at the port of entry was convinced they were actually citizens, and there were sometimes messups).
Third, the implementation of the law provided the early contours of territorialism: Chinese who had immigrated but not naturalized prior to the passage of the Act were not allowed to naturalize, but they were not required to leave the country. As long as they were physically present in the country, they enjoyed the rights of non-citizens (subject to the caveat of being harassed due to the suspicion). However, if they left the country and tried to return, they could be denied entry. This was formalized in the Scott Act of 1888 discussed later in the post. This was an early precedent for the current regime that distinguishes between entry visas and authorized stays.
Fourth, the high versus low skill distinction emerged in the law. The law banned the migration of skilled and unskilled laborers, but allowed for the migration of people in white-collar professions, if they could get documentation from the Chinese government to that effect, and could convince the officer at the port of entry. In practice, many people in white-collar professions also found it hard to enter due to lack of adequate documentation. This again resembles the current system, where high-skilled immigrants need to, and often fail to, jump through the many hoops needed to demonstrate their high skills.