The Trump Administration’s immigration policies are part of the shameful legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which ushered in a new, discriminatory governing framework for U.S. borders.
On February 28, 1882, Senator John Franklin Miller, a Republican from California, introduced a bill to bar Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Miller had been a brigadier general in the Union Army. After the Civil War, he moved his family to San Francisco and later made his fortune as the president of a seal-hunting company. By the time he was elected to the Senate, in 1881, Chinese migrants in the U.S., who had mostly settled in California and other Western states, numbered over a hundred thousand. A movement to expel them from the country, fanned by racial animosity and the anxieties of white workers, had drawn widespread support. “If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people, with their peculiar civilization, until they form a considerable part of our population, what is to be the effect upon the American people and Anglo-Saxon civilization?” Miller said. “Can these two civilizations endure, side by side, as two distinct and hostile forces? Is American civilization as unimpressible as Chinese civilization? When the end comes for one or the other, which will be found to have survived? Can they meet halfway, and so merge in a mongrel race, half Chinese and half Caucasian, as to produce a civilization half-pagan, half-Christian, semi-Oriental, altogether mixed, and very bad?”
The following day, Senator George Frisbie Hoar, a Massachusetts Republican, delivered a stirring rebuke. Hoar was the grandson of the Founding Father Roger Sherman and a committed abolitionist who also fought on behalf of women’s suffrage. In response to Miller, he pointed out that, in 1881, more than seven hundred and twenty thousand immigrants arrived in the United States. Of these, fewer than twenty-one thousand were Chinese. “What an insult to American intelligence to ask leave of China to keep out her people, because this little handful of almond-eyed Asiatics threaten to destroy our boasted civilization,” he said. “We go boasting of our democracy, and our superiority, and our strength. The flag bears the stars of hope to all nations. A hundred thousand Chinese land in California and everything is changed. God has not made of one blood all the nations any longer. The self-evident truth becomes a self-evident lie. The golden rule does not apply to the natives of the continent where it was first uttered.”
Despite Hoar’s eloquent oration, Miller’s bill passed, with the support of Southern Democrats and senators from both parties in Western states. Several months later, President Chester Arthur signed an amended version into law. Although the measure had an innocuous-sounding description—“an act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese”—it banned new Chinese workers from entering the United States for ten years and prohibited Chinese immigrants already here from becoming citizens. The law, which later became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1904, until its repeal, in 1943. It marked the first time in American history that federal law restricted a group from entering the country on the basis of race and class. More importantly, as the historian Erika Lee argues, the law fundamentally altered America’s relationship to immigration and ushered in a new governing framework for the country’s borders, premised around the need to keep certain types of foreigners out. “Beginning in 1882, the United States stopped being a nation of immigrants that welcomed foreigners without restrictions, borders, or gates,” Lee writes, in her book “At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.” “Instead, it became a new type of nation, a gatekeeping nation.”
This week, the Trump Administration announced new regulations that deny permanent legal status, or green cards, to immigrants who are likely to need government services, such as Medicaid, public housing, and food stamps. The policy, which is set to take effect in October, is expected to disproportionately penalize immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean; immigrants from Europe and Canada are less likely to be affected. During an interview for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” Rachel Martin, one of the show’s hosts, pressed Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to defend the policy in light of the ideals expressed in the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which appears on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Cuccinelli suggested a twist to the cherished sonnet. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he said. He later added that, in his opinion, the poem referred to “people coming from Europe.”
The new regulation is part of a comprehensive effort by the Trump Administration to restrict immigration, which includes steps to reduce refugee admissions, bar entry from certain Muslim-majority countries, deter asylum seekers, and apply greater scrutiny to all immigrant visa applications. Trump’s diatribes have offered an unmistakably racist backdrop to these measures. He has railed against immigrants from “shithole countries,” characterized the influx of Latinos into the United States as an “invasion,” and suggested that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to the countries “from which they came.”
As the Senate debate about Chinese immigration makes depressingly clear, the current moment of fracture is hardly unique in our history. In their sweeping comparative examination, “Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas,” David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martin argue that, among Western liberal democracies, the United States has actually been a leader in developing explicitly racist policies of nationality and immigration. After Chinese laborers were barred in 1882, lawmakers took steps to ban other Asian immigrants from entering the United States. In the nineteen-twenties, as arguments based on eugenics declared the inferiority of Jews, Italians, and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, new legislation imposed strict quotas on immigration from those regions. Some immigration restrictions were eased during the Second World War and in the postwar era, but the national-origin quota system that favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe was not fully lifted until 1965.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—which prioritized immigrants with skills and “exceptional ability” in various fields, and also relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents—set in motion the ethnic transformation of the country that is unfolding today. Yet even that legislation was made possible only because of proponents’ mistaken impression that it would do little to alter the nation’s demographics. As Tom Gjelten writes, in “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” “Perhaps the most important factor explaining its easy passage was that both the immigration reformers and the immigration restrictionists managed to convince themselves and each other that the legislation would not change the immigration picture all that much.”
What then can our immigration history tell us about the prospects for this current racist chapter? FitzGerald and Cook-Martin found that, rather than domestic pressures, geopolitical factors were often decisive in reversing such policies. Chinese exclusion, for instance, was finally eased when China became allied with the United States in the Pacific war. Similarly, decolonization in Africa and Asia and Cold War competition contributed to the dismantling of the national-origins quota system. But, as Trump increasingly leads America on the path of isolationism, those forces seem unlikely to offer much hope today.
As I read the transcripts of the Senate debate on Chinese exclusion, however, I found myself dwelling on the weight of history and its judgment. Miller is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for the role he played in ushering in one of the most discriminatory pieces of legislation in American history. By contrast, Hoar is lauded as a principled statesman, credited with delivering one of the most stirring speeches against bigotry in the history of the U.S. Senate. It is up to Cucinnelli, others in the Trump Administration, and potential enablers in the Republican Party to decide how they wish history to judge them, even as they carry on a shameful legacy that American democracy has struggled to escape.