Tag Archives: US specifc

How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: The Chinese Exclusion Act

As promised, here is the start of my historical examination of immigration rule changes, and we begin with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For those interested in the text of the act itself it can be found here.

For a little background, the first restriction on immigration to the US was actually the Page Act of 1875. This act too focused on Asian immigrants attempting to limit people being brought over for forced labor or prostitution. In practice that latter provision was a significant limiting factor on Chinese women coming to the United States, less because of most emigrating Chinese women actually being prostitutes than officials being overly skeptical towards claims of virtue. This association of the Chinese with crime was one of the major arguments used by anti-Chinese restrictionists in the years leading up to the exclusion act’s passage and parallels modern arguments about immigrant criminality. To explore this (and other major restrictionist arguments) the internet has made easily accessible wonderful resources such as arguments made before the California State Senate (the state with the highest Chinese population) by State Senator Creed Haymond. On page 4 he argues:

The State of California has a population variously estimated at from seven hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand, of which one hundred twenty-five thousand are Chinese…The evidence demonstrates beyond cavil that nearly the entire immigration comes from the lowest orders of the Chinese people, and mainly those having no homes or occupations on the land, but living on boats on the rivers, especially those in the vicinity of Canton.

This class of the people, according to the castes into which Chinese society is divided, are virtually pariahs—the dregs of the population. None of them are  admitted into any of the privileges of the orders ranking above them. And while rudimentary education is encouraged, and even enforced among the masses of the people, the fishermen and those living on the waters and harbors of China are excluded by the rigid and hoary constitutions of caster from participation in such advantages.

It would seem to be a necessary consequence, flowing from this class of immigration, that a large proportion of criminals should be found among it; and this deduction is abundantly sustained by the facts before us, for of five hundred and forty-five of the foreign criminals in our State Prison, one hundred and ninety-eight are Chinese—nearly two-fifths of the whole—while our jails and reformatories swarm with the lower grade of malefactors.

(Emphasis mine).

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With Friends Like These

The New York Times last month ran a series of viewpoints on immigration. Now, as much as finding ways to argue against restrictionists can be enlightening (and maybe fun as well) today I’ve set out on a different task: pointing out bad arguments/strategies coming from a more pro-immigration (though not quite a pro-open borders) angle. To that end, Gary Segura’s article “Path to Citizenship Must be Included” is the target for today.

In this piece, Dr. Segura sets out four “must have” points for any immigration reform bill in the United States. I’ll take these from the least problematic to the most (a clever ruse to get you to read the whole post). To that end, we’ll start with demand number two:

Requirements and penalties for seeking legal immigration status should not be so onerous or punitive that they render the reform pointless. High fines or “touchback’’ rules that require immigrants to return to their home countries before applying would render status adjustment unattainable for many. Any reform that does not actually improve the lives of those affected is not acceptable.

This demand more or less works from my perspective, and to show why let me restate it: “immigration reform that is effectively not immigration reform is pointless.”

Now this isn’t to say that gradualism isn’t acceptable. On the contrary, gradualism may be the only way to actually eventually achieve any kind of open borders policy. But if a reform results in the vast majority of currently illegal immigrants staying in that condition then there is little progress achieved while potentially slowing the pace of future reform. A bad reform bill might still convince people that there does not need to be immediate action right afterwards. The real key is what constitutes restrictions so heavy that the bill is no longer worthwhile. Some level of fines, though perhaps not ideal, could still be better than nothing. The 1986 Immigration Reform Act required back taxes and some fines for legalizing many illegal immigrants and yet legalized three million immigrants. While making the fines and limitations as limited as possible will help more immigrants and create closer steps to open borders, a “no-limitations-or-no-deal” stance could derail even otherwise moderate reform. Personally I might like to see immigrants legalized with as few fines or limitations as possible, but that doesn’t mean that legalizing several million immigrants isn’t worthwhile. For this point, my main concern is just to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, a fault that seems to occur often in this piece.

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