Marking The Anniversary of 'Illegal Immigration'

May 6, 1882 is the date for the birth of ‘illegal immigration.’ Like most social concerns that are only deemed as a ‘problem’ when it benefits the state, the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States, the so-called ‘yellow peril’ and ‘Asian invasion’ now required ‘documentation.’ The Chinese were constructed as unassimilable peoples, not eligible for citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act of  1882. The Act also restricted Chinese immigration by excluding Chinese laborers from entering the country for the next 10 years under penalty of deportation and imprisonment. This would pave the way for more codes and statutes restricting Chinese immigration:

S 6 (22 Stat. 58, . 120), provides that every Chinese person other than a laborer, who may be entitled to come within the United States, shall produce a prescribed certificate of his identity and of his right to enter: and Act July 5, 1884, provides that this certificate “shall be the sole evidence
permissible on the part of the person so producing the same to establish a right of entry into the United States.” Act Oct. 1. 18X8. prohibits any Chinese laborer who had been, or was then, or might hereafter be, a resident within the United States, and who had departed or might depart therefrom, to return to or remain in the United States. Held, that since the passage of the latter act no Chinese person, formerly resident in the United States but temporarily absent
therefrom, is entitled to return without the
prescribed certificate.—Wan Shing v. United
State», 140 U. S. 424. 11 S. Ct. 729, 35 L. Ed. 03.

What led to the enacted of Chinese exclusion? Was it working class fears of Chinese immigrants taking their jobs (as is the excuse given today) or simply sheer racism that the anti-illegal immigrant lobby denies in contemporary times?

The Act was approved by Congress on May 6, and signed into law by the President on May 8. The headline in the Inter Ocean read “China Cornered: President Arthur Signs the Bill for Restricting Mongolian Immigration” (Inter Ocean, May 9 1882, page 2, vol. XI, iss. 36). A month earlier, President Arthur had vetoed a similar bill since he was afraid of retaliation from the Qing government of China but newspapers were full of headlines such as “The Mongol Wins” (San Francisco Bulletin, April 6 1882) and “The Victory of the Chinophiles” (San Francisco Bulletin, April 5 1882). Wading through old newspaper archives from this time, I caught hold of several interesting pieces that centered around justifying the exclusion of Chinese from citizenship.

Amid protests against President Arthur, including burning his effigy, a committee meeting was held by Republicans where the President was addressed:

“…unlike our people in form and feature, in habit and character, informed in the rites of a pagan religion, and disciplined under a cruel code by a despotic Government, they are not qualified for the exercise of the rights or duties of American citizens…and from their tenacity and inflexibility of nature, we believe they never can become loyal citizens of the United States.”

The address went on to claim the invasion of Chinese laborers and the threat they posed to every interest and class of society. At the same time, efforts were underway to differentiate Chinese immigration from European immigration in order to justify the exclusion. San Francisco Bulletin ran a story on “True and False Immigration” with the basic premise that the Chinese laborer is not a ‘true immigrant’ since this immigration is characterized by uneven number of sexes; it is rather an invasion, the article concluded (April 21, 1882).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished in 1943 but the concept of ‘documenting’ the foreign Other was underway and ‘illegal immigration’ or undocumented immigration was born and the after-effects continue to reverberate in contemporary immigration control policy.

(You can access old newspaper archives via your university library Newsbank or Proquest database).

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