On this day in 1882, the US adopted a law including these provisions:

Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof [we’re looking at you, California]: Therefore … until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended…. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship[.]

Actually, it’s much longer, going on for almost three pages in the Statutes at Large, beginning at 22 Stat. 58, including all kinds of provisions for controlling immigration. It was America’s first legal definition of an entire nationality as unassimilable.

There are several ways to think about this law. One is, it was part of a global movement among white settler colonies to exclude Chinese: what did Canada, Australia, and the US have in common? Aside from British-inflected culture and government. No, aside from frontiers. No, aside from gold strikes and boom-and-bust frontiers. No, aside from frontier war against the aboriginal inhabitants. No, aside from relying on immigrant labor. YES, bigotry against immigrant laborers! If you want to find your trans-oceanic community of policy-making, look at the immigrant-haters. Victoria, in Australia, had a Chinese exclusion law in 1855; other Australian governments followed suit, so that by 1887 there were such laws all over Oz. The US passed its law in 1882; the Canadians did not outright exclude Chinese until 1923 but in the meantime had a variety of measures, including a head tax and a highly discretionary system of immigrant admission, that kept down Chinese immigration. The pattern of Japanese immigration restriction is similar; Queensland made a “gentleman’s agreement” with Japan to keep down immigration in 1897, while the US did its deal with Japan in 1907 and Canada did its in 1908. (Why were the Chinese excluded by law while the Japanese were excluded by bilateral negotiation? The Chinese were quasi-colonized, while the Japanese had a navy modeled on Britain’s.)

Another way of looking at the law is to see it functioning within the history of American immigration restriction. Chinese exclusion invented something like the concept and business of modern illegal immigration. As a journalist wrote in 1891,

There is no part [of the Canadian border] over which a Chinaman may not pass into our country without fear of hinderance; there are scarcely any parts of it where he may not boldly walk across it at high noon.

The law and its successor of 1892 also made necessary for the first time the modern machinery of immigration and residency control and documentation. And what was made for the Chinese eventually extended to other immigrants as well—not just the Japanese, but eventually all “Asiatics,” excluded by the 1917 law. And also Europeans: in the decades around 1900, Americans found lots of ways to define various nationalities of immigrants as undesirable owing to “health” problems. Somehow, the taxonomy of health problems mapped onto certain ethnicities and national origins, as Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern find; Jews were “neurasthenic,” Italians “criminally minded.”2 Medical opinion underwrote racism, allowing the redefinition of people previously considered “white” and thus A-OK, as excludable along with the “Asiatics.” What starts as the “Yellow Peril” can become the merely sallow peril. Say, you’re looking a little peaky there, yourself….


1Cited in Erika Lee, “Enforcing the Borders: Chinese Exclusion along the U.S. Borders with Canada and Mexico, 1882-1924,” Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (June 2002): 54-86. The discussion here also relies on Mae Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 67-92, and the various works of Roger Daniels, including his good survey of immigration law, Guarding the Golden Door.
2Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern, “Which Face? Whose Nation? The Construction of Disease at America’s Ports and Borders, 1891-1928,” American Behavioral Scientist 42, no. 9 (June/July 1999): 1314-1331.