Title: At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943
Author: Erika Lee
Categories: Immigration, Race, The West, National Sovereignty, Federal Power, Bureaucratization
Place: The American West
Time Period: 1882-1943
Erika Lee writes about the period of Chinese Exclusion from 1882 until it's official end in 1943. Lee argues that Chinese exclusion was the first and most influential immigration policy that helped turn the United States from being relatively open and unrestricted into a "gatekeeping nation" and gave rise to the concept of illegal immigration. Instead of literature that focuses on the restrictionist period of the 1920s, she wants to push this national narrative farther back by arguing that racial exclusion against Chinese immigrants played a vital role in national identity formation and the coalescing of the nation-state.
Lee charts the first several decades of exclusion and debates swirling around it as a preview of a range of future immigration policies and issues. Vitriolic arguments against Chinese immigration served as a blueprint for excluding future racialized "others" (from Mexicans to Japanese to Filipinos to European ethnic groups). This initial period also gave birth to a modern federal bureaucracy dedicated to exclusionary policies, transforming itself from a motley crew of immigration officials into a centralized, modern organization that employed all the apparatus of government control: passports, permits, visas, etc. She also notes the influence of on-the-ground officials in crystallizing and institutionalizing a racialized policy of "guilty until proven innocent" that assumed Chinese should not be in the United States - a process that was shaped by gender, class, race, and citizenship (ex. assuming Chinese women were prostitutes, or differentiating between legal higher class merchant immigrants vs. poor manual laborer "coolies" who would steal American jobs). Although Lee acknowledges the transnational community that fostered both legal and illegal immigration, she argues for the primacy of the American nation-state in its mutually constitutive relationship to race, immigration, and sovereignty. In particular, she argues that this process was one that flourished in the historical context of the American West via white supremacy backed by federal power.
Lee goes on to discuss how Chinese immigrants faced these policies of exclusion. She notes a transformation pivoting around 1910: previous efforts focused on trying to overturn the legislation, whereas afterwards it was geared towards more incremental reform or circumventing the rules. Oftentimes this had a class and citizenship component, as those seeking to tweak the legislation were often merchants or native Chinese-Americans who wanted to disassociate themselves from other, illegitimate Chinese immigrants. Exclusion also engendered the rapid ascent of a lucrative transnational business peddling in illegal immigration. In a cyclical, mutually dependent cycle, ever more complex policies aimed at curbing entry gave rise to ever more complex methods of circumventing it (ex. black market "study guides" for answering exhaustive interrogations, with questions such as "Which direction did your house face?"). Lee argues that driving immigration underground resulted in a similarly mutually destructive pattern - leading to lying and fear on the side of Chinese immigrants, and abuse and corruption on the side of American officials. With the rise of illegal immigration (often through both the Canadian and Mexican borders), Lee posits that the Chinese became the paradigm of the illegal immigrant in a process that extended "gatekeeping" to the interior as well the borders. Deportations and raids in American communities helped to conflate American attitudes towards all people of Chinese descent and sowed fear and instability in Chinese communities.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Chinese exclusion turned the US into a "gatekeeping nation"
- Growth of INS bureaucracy
- Racialization of "illegal immigrant" starts with Chinese as the first model - applied to successive groups
- Legacy of American West: white supremacy bolstered by federal power - ties into exclusion
- Chinese exclusion plays a role in national identity-formation (centrality of nation-state rather than more muted transnational impacts)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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