Today is the anniversary* of our nation’s first** law generally governing immigration.
It’s a history we should work to change, to put behind us, to move away from.
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from the United States for 10 years.
1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, page 1 – National Archives
1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, page 2 – National Archives
We cannot paint over this part of history. The Chinese Exclusion Act was racist in intent, and racist in content.
What should we learn from it? Among justifications for the law were claims that immigrants from China were taking jobs from citizens, especially in California. Chinese workers imported to build the Transcontinental Railroads sought new employment once the routes were built.
Reality probably differed a lot. Chinese entrepreneurs, with money they had earned working on the railroads, established news businesses. Yes, a lot of Chinese were getting jobs. They were mostly new jobs, in new businesses, boosting the economy and creating more jobs. That came to an almost-screeching halt.
Did America learn? This law was renewed, then made permanent — not really fixed until World War II, when China was an ally in the War in the Pacific, against Japan. Even then, it wasn’t a good fix.
The law was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 during World War II, when China was an ally in the war against imperial Japan. Nevertheless, the 1943 act still allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year, reflecting persisting prejudice against the Chinese in American immigration policy. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated previous national-origins policy, that large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States was allowed to begin again after a hiatus of over 80 years.
Can we learn from this history, for immigration reform now? Santayana’s Ghost wonders.
How much is resistance to immigration reform based on racism, the sort of racism that kills the U.S. economy?
The Chinese Exclusion Act proved to be an embarrassment for Uncle Sam: “A Skeleton in His Closet,” by L.M. Glackens, published in Puck magazine on Jan. 3, 1912. Uncle Sam holding paper “Protest against Russian exclusion of Jewish Americans” and looking in shock at Chinese skeleton labeled “American exclusion of Chinese” in closet. Image from NorthwestAsianWeekly.com
* I note the image says it was approved by President Chester Alan Arthur (who had succeeded to office after President James Garfield was assassinated a year earlier). The New York Times calls May 6 the anniversary of Congress’s passing the law; if Arthur signed in on May 6, it was probably passed a few days earlier. May 6 would be the anniversary of its signing into law.
** The Chinese Exclusion Act was preceded by the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited immigration of “undesirable” people. Who was undesirable? “The law classified as undesirable any individual from China who was coming to America to be a contract laborer, any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own country.” It was not applicable to many immigrants. The Page Act was named after its sponsor, Rep. Horace F. Page of California.
This is based on, and borrows from, an earlier post at MFB.