On American Born Chinese

For an innumerable amount of those living in the late 19th to the early 20th century, one common desire was held. The abstraction of immigrating to the United States held promises of prosperity, freedom, and limitless opportunities. Like others, Chinese immigrants were no exception to the sudden influx of unfamiliars who came to America looking for work. Large numbers of Chinese chose to pursue work in America during the California Gold Rush of 1848 in order to escape poverty and political freedom as a result of the Taiping Rebellion.

The Chinese population in America again grew exponentially later in the 1860’s when the demand for labor rose due to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. In addition to this, Chinese laborers also dominated agricultural jobs, and factory work, specifically in the garment industry.

When gold was in abundance and mining jobs were considered plentiful, the Chinese were well-accepted and even seen as dignified due to their hard-working and passionate nature when it came to performing tasks.

However, after the boom of the California Gold Rush ended in 1855, the country fell into a landslide of economic downturn. As gold and prosperity diminished, so did the respect that Americans nativists held for the Chinese. Many Native-born Americans were unable to find employment that sufficiently paid enough to support their families, however, at the same time many of such were unwilling to work unfair hours for low wages. Because of this, many companies and employers looked towards hiring Chinese immigrants, who were mostly unaware of acceptable wages and labor laws.

An exceeding amount of Chinese immigrants were willing to work long hours for less pay, leading to many Native-born Americans to resent the Chinese and believe they were pilfering them of job opportunities. Animosity grew due to American nativists desiring a scapegoat to blame for their economic misfortune. Hate crimes against the Chinese became prominent; racist graffiti adorned various areas, anti-Chinese riots occurred, and many people even went to such lengths as to suggest the barring and deportation of all Chinese-Americans. This dissatisfaction ultimately lead to the racism-fueled Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first time that race had been used to exclude an entire group of people from entering the United States.

Reactions to the Chinese Exclusion Act were considered to be mixed, with various groups in support and in opposition of the act. Anti-Chinese groups took this event as an opportunity to rise to power, such as the Supreme Order of Caucasians, which was supported by California’s governor John Bigler. Advocates of the act called Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans racist terms such as “coolies” and solely blamed them as well as other ethnic groups of immigrants for their economic downfall and hardships. On the other hand, the Chinese collectively and passionately opposed the law, as it persecuted and oppressed them and destroyed many lives by deporting and tearing family members apart. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the very first of its kind, despite growing hostilities towards immigrants in general.

Never before had the United States barred immigration, especially for a singular ethnic group. After this act was brought into effect, Chinese still wishing to immigrate into America were not allowed for an extensive period of time. Unsurprisingly, racism towards Chinese as well as other immigrants was not considered to be a completely foreign concept before the economic difficulties that arose during this time. Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress had actually banned Chinese women from entering the United States in 1875, under the pretext that it would preserve the health of white citizens by lowering the amount of Chinese prostitutes. However, this exclusion allowed immigration authorities to ultimately bar Chinese men’s wives and children from gaining entrance into the country.

As a consequence of this act, many Chinese were criminalized and suffered immense racial discrimination and violence. In the face of the American public, the Chinese were seen as inferior and unworthy. Because of this, thousands of Chinese immigrants, as well as Chinese owned businesses and residences were assaulted and expelled from various towns. In only two years time since the Chinese Exclusion Act had been enacted, the population of Chinese immigrants had dwindled to the number of 75,000. Additionally, American-born Chinese were no exception to the prejudice that resulted from the Chinese Exclusion Act. Many born Chinese-Americans as well as the Chinese immigrants who remained post-exclusion worked hard to assimilate and better themselves to fit into American society, but they were no match for how deeply the consequences of the exclusion act would affect their lives.

Many of the Chinese immigrants who were able to avoid deportation in 1882 were denied jobs and lived in fear that the exclusion laws would eventually catch up to them, leading to many to go great lengths to hide their identities and evade them. Chinese immigrants such as Lee Chew, described how his race had been “shut out from working on farms or factories or building railroads or making streets or digging sewers” immediately following the exclusion acts in the year of 1882. Chew similarly describes how the Chinese are treated the poorest in comparison to other ethnic groups of immigrants, stating “The Americans would not dare treat Germans, English, Italian, or even Japanese as they treat the Chinese, because if they did there would be a war…” Many desperate Chinese would attempt to enter the United States through means of crossing the Mexican or Canadian borders despite the risk and danger that becoming an undocumented immigrant entails.

The Chinese ultimately became the United State’s first illegal immigrants by taking advantage of loopholes and error in the government’s immigration and border enforcement. By 1907, many highly organized Chinese and Mexican ran businesses had established illegal immigration businesses, with one of the most prominent ones headed by Chinese-Mexican José Chang. Important steps in Chang’s operation included physically and mentally disguising the Chinese arrivals as Mexican residents, as well as exchanging their clothing for “the most picturesque Mexican dress.” The immigrants received fraudulent Mexican citizenship and documentation, and were taught how to speak basic and minimal Spanish. For those who aspired to enter by means of Canada, many from China simply chose to move to Canada for an extended period of time in hopes of eventually finding a way into the United States. In comparison to the Mexican border in the south, the Canadian border was considered to be largely unguarded and feasible in terms of executing crossings.

This was possibly due to the difference regarding Canada’s attitudes toward Chinese immigration laws. Although Chinese immigrants continued to face discrimination and racial prejudice in Canada, cracks in Canadian policies allowed for easy and uncomplicated passage into the United States. Rather than replicating the United States and practicing methods of direct exclusion, Canada chose to restrict Chinese immigrants by indirect and ineffective means, such as imposing taxes to be collected by ship captains when departing and arriving, which allowed for Chinese immigrants to enter Canada given that this tax was simply paid off. It was ultimately determined that an estimated 300 to 2,000 illegal Chinese immigrants made their way into the United States every year during this time.

The effects of the Chinese Exclusion Acts afflicted not only the Chinese, but foreign country affairs which reached the United States itself. In a letter to the American Secretary of State Elihu Root from diplomate William Franklin Sands in the year 1907, Sands describes how Guatemala had similarly decided to deny the Chinese permission to immigrate in 1896. The Palace of Executive Power in Guatemala saw Chinese immigrants as repeat abusers and attempted to force them to leave by requiring all those staying legally in their country to present passports to authorities. It was made clear that “any Chinese that will fail to show to any authority or to any guardian… the passport mentioned… shall be immediately expelled from the country.”

However, the government made acquiring said required passport for the Chinese very difficult, with the process being conducted by authorities with the sole power to concede or deny anyone a passport. Said authorities were also given the right to practice investigations on the Chinese whenever deemed necessary, leading to bias and corruption. This proved that the Chinese faced hardships not only in the United States, but outside as well, in reference to the aforementioned Canadian as well as Guatemalan exclusion laws. In the end, the Chinese Exclusion Acts and their consequences remained unchanged for an extensive length of time lasting 61 years.

The acts were not revoked until the year of 1943, though this took place solely because of the growing interest of acquiring China as a wartime ally during the course of World War II. With China’s political turmoil already set in place by events of the time such as the Opium Wars and the Treaties of Wanghia and Tianjin, the exponentially increasing harsh restrictions on Chinese immigration, amalgamated with the rising discrimination against Chinese alreading residing in the United States in the late 19th to early 20th century, resulted in a tremendously strained and unforgettable diplomatic relationship between the United States and China.

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