The chinese are coming. How can we stop them? Chinese exclusion and origins of american gatekeeping

Erika Lee

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


In 1876, H. N. Clement, a San Francisco lawyer, stood before a California State Senate Committee and sounded the alarm: "The Chinese are upon us. How can we get rid of them? The Chinese are coming. How can we stop them?"1 Panicked cries such as these and portrayals of Chinese immigration as an evil, "unarmed invasion" had been shared by several witnesses before the committee, which was charged with investigating the "social, moral, and political effects" of Chinese immigration. Testimony like Clement's was designed to reach a broad audience, and the committee hearings themselves were part of a calculated political attempt to bring the question of Chinese immigration to a national audience.2 Many Californians had long felt beleaguered by the influx of Chinese immigrants into the state and now believed that it was time that the federal government took action. As the committee's "Address to the People of the United States upon the Evils of Chinese Immigration" stated, the people of California had "but one disposition upon this grave subject . . . and that is an open and pronounced demand upon the Federal Government for relief."3 At the time of the committee hearings, the United States was just beginning to exert federal control over immigration. Its first efforts had begun one year earlier in response to the California lobby to exclude Asian contract labor and women (mostly Chinese) suspected of entering the country for "lewd or immoral purposes." The resulting Page Law, passed in 1875, represented the country's first- Albeit limited-regulation of immigration on the federal level and served as an important step toward general Chinese exclusion.4 The U.S. Congress eventually heeded the call of Californians and other westerners to protect them from the so-called Chinese invasion with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Historians have often noted that the Chinese Exclusion Act marks a "watershed" in U.S. history. Not only was it the country's first significant restrictive immigration law; it was also the first to restrict a group of immigrants based on their race, nationality, and class. As Roger Daniels has written, the Chinese Exclusion Act was "the hinge upon which the legal history of immigration turned."5 This observation has become the standard interpretation of the anti-Chinese movement, but until recently, most accounts of Chinese exclusion have focused more on the anti-Chinese movement preceding the Chinese Exclusion Act than on the six decades of the exclusion era itself.6 Moreover, there has been little attempt to explain the larger impact and legacies of Chinese exclusion. For example, how did the effort to exclude Chinese influence the restriction and exclusion of other immigrant groups? How did the racialization of Chinese as excludable aliens contribute to and intersect with the racialization of other Asian, southern and eastern European, and Mexican immigrants? What precedents did the Chinese Exclusion Act set for the admission, documentation, surveillance, and deportation of both new arrivals and immigrant communities within the United States? When the Page Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act serve as the beginning rather than the end of the narrative, we are forced to focus more fully on the enormous significance of Chinese exclusion. It becomes clear that its importance as a "watershed" goes beyond its status as one of the first immigration policies to be passed in the United States. Certainly, the Page Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act provided the legal architecture for twentieth-century American immigration policy.7 Chinese exclusion, however, also introduced gatekeeping ideology, politics, law, and culture that transformed the ways in which Americans viewed and thought about race, immigration, and the United States' identity as a nation of immigrants. It legalized the restriction, exclusion, and deportation of immigrants considered to be threats to the United States. It established Chinese immigrants- categorized by their race, class, and gender relations as the ultimate example of the dangerous, degraded alien- As the yardsticks by which to measure the desirability (and " whiteness") of other immigrant groups. Lastly, the Chinese exclusion laws not only provided an example of how to contain threatening and undesirable foreigners, they also set in motion new modes and technologies of immigration regulation, including federal immigration officials and bureaucracies, U.S. passports, "green cards," and illegal immigration and deportation policies. In the end, Chinese exclusion forever changed America's relationship to immigration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAsian American Studies Now
Subtitle of host publicationA Critical Reader
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9780813545745
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


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