How the U.S. Invented Illegal Immigration to Keep Out Chinese

Undocumented immigration today, though mostly debated with Latin Americans and the southern border of the United States in mind, cuts across racial boundaries. At American Heritage, Claire Lui has a useful reminder of where illegal immigration began: the Chinese Exclusion Act. Here’s a start:

On May 6, 1882, a century and a quarter ago today, President Chester A. Arthur signed a law banning almost all immigration from China to the United States. It affected only a small percentage of immigrants, but it marked the birth of illegal immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act and its subsequent extensions altered the legal definition of American citizenship far more than its original drafters could have foreseen. It wasn’t repealed until 1943, 61 years later, and it continues to reverberate in immigration policy today.

Before 1882, immigration to the United States was barely regulated at all. [full story]

The reason for the exclusion was remarkably similar to much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we hear today. In the immortal words of the entire TV town of South Park, “They took our joooobs!!” (The South Park invaders may have been illegal aliens, but then again they were [[Ed. WAS: actual aliens; CORRECTED: alien-looking humans from the future]].) Chinese were working for less, and undercut the labor market. Lui writes: “When Irish factory workers in San Francisco went on strike in 1870, demanding an increase in pay from three to four dollars a day, they were quickly replaced by Chinese who accepted only a dollar a day.”

A very interesting chance of history gave some Chinese citizenship rights. The 14th Amendment holds that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Apparently the big earthquake in 1906 destroyed lots of San Francisco’s records so that no one had real proof of where they were born. And a 1898 Supreme Court case had already held that Chinese could not be denied citizenship rights based on race.

This article’s definitely worth a read.





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