This column by American studies professor Ben Railton is the first in a series that explores the connections between America’s past and present.
One of the great unknown American short stories, “In the Land of the Free [PDF]” (1912) by Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton), describes the effects of the first American immigration laws and policies on a Chinese American family. In Far’s story, Chinese American merchant Hom Hing and his wife Lae Choo have immigrated to and live in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. But Lae Choo has returned to China to care for her husband’s dying parents; while there she gives birth to their first child, a son. When she and her infant child return to her San Francisco home, they are detained by customs officers; eventually her son is forcibly taken away from her and held in a detention facility.
After ten long months of efforts to secure his release—“ten months since the sun had ceased to shine for Lae Choo,” Far writes—the family finally succeeds. Yet when Lae Choo reunites with her son, he “shrunk from her and tried to hide himself in the folds of the white woman’s skirt.” The story’s tragic final line is, “‘Go ‘way, go ‘way!’ he bade his mother.”
Immigration laws and policies might appear to focus entirely on new arrivals to the United States. But as exemplified by the earliest national immigration laws, the development of immigration policy has also consistently affected families and communities already in the United States. Many elements of these discriminatory first immigration laws were created precisely to disrupt both new and existing immigrant American families, and through them communities deemed less desirable or less “American.”
The first national immigration law was the Page Act of 1875 [PDF], a very specific act that defined three particular categories of arrivals as “undesirable”: those considered convicts in their prior country, forced laborers, and Asian women coming to the U.S. “for the purposes of prostitution.” The third category engaged in stereotypical (and enduring) images of Asian women as by nature “lewd and immoral” (the act’s own terms). But in an era of rising anti-Chinese sentiment, the true goal of that category was to make it more difficult for Chinese Americans to establish multi-generational families and communities: many of the first such Chinese arrivals had been men, and limiting female arrivals would thus limit such multi-generational growth.
In fact many such multi-generational Chinese American families and communities already existed in the United States as of the 1870s. The 1880 census (the first to record ethnic/national identity) identified more than 100,000 Chinese Americans, a number likely much lower than the actual one given the difficulty of documenting those living in crowded mining camps and tenement houses. Limiting future arrivals would not be enough to eliminate, or even necessarily contain, such a significant, longstanding, and rooted American community.
Which is why the next national immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, went significantly further still. The act deemed virtually every category of future Chinese arrival as now illegal, including “both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” It also made it impossible for any Chinese American to gain citizenship and stripped the citizenship of all those who had already earned it. The act’s preamble argued that Chinese immigration “endangers the good order of certain localities” within the United States, and of course such a sentiment would have to apply to present and past arrivals just as fully as future ones.
Follow-up laws in the aftermath of the Exclusion Act further clarified these goals of dismantling existing families and communities. The Scott Act of 1888 made it illegal for any Chinese American living in the United States to leave the nation and attempt to return, an odious extension of the Exclusion Act designed explicitly to sever multi-national family and community relationships and implicitly to make it far more difficult for Chinese Americans to continuing living in the U.S. The Geary Act of 1892 extended and amplified those difficulties, requiring Chinese Americans to carry at all times a “resident permit” or risk immediate deportation.
Lae Choo and her infant son in Far’s story were thus breaking the law (indeed, likely multiple post-Exclusion Act laws), making them “illegal immigrants” who were officially deserving of whatever punishment the customs officers and the government deemed appropriate. Yet Far’s story underscores two fundamental historical realities: that immigration laws have artificially constructed categories like “legal” and “illegal” through the development of particular, discriminatory immigration laws; and that those laws have been applied not only to categorize certain arrivals as “undesirable” and thus “illegal,” but also and especially to do the same for existing American families and communities.
The fictional account of Lae Choo closely parallels a multitude of actual victims of these discriminatory laws. Yung Wing, one of the 19th century’s most famous Chinese Americans, had come to the United States as a teenager, brought to Connecticut by missionaries in the late 1840s. He would go on to become the first Chinese American college graduate (graduating Yale in 1854), an American citizen, and a prominent diplomat and educator. His crowning achievement was the 1872 founding of the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) in Hartford, a program that brought 120 Chinese young men to the U.S. Yet the school was closed in 1880 due to rising anti-Chinese sentiments, and Yung experienced even more destructive results of the Exclusion era: His citizenship was stripped and he was kept out of the country and separated from his family for years. His wife passed away and his young sons were fostered out to friends. He was never legally allowed to return to the United States.
In contrast to these more exclusionary histories, America has also seen moments and laws with more inclusive visions of immigrant arrivals, families, and communities. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, for example, prioritized immigrants with existing connections in the United States, focusing on “immediate relatives” such as spouses, parents and children, grandparents, and siblings in an attempt to build upon and strengthen immigrant family and community ties. The 1965 law has made it possible for multi-generational immigrant families from many previously excluded nations and cultures—Chinese Americans among them—to once again develop and flourish in the United States.
These immigration policy choices not only affect the opportunities and experiences of new and future arrivals, but also help create and strengthen a national community in which such families and communities can exist and grow openly and successfully. Every debate over immigration law and policy, such as those unfolding in our own moment, affect American families and communities in purposeful and significant ways. Understanding past laws and how they affected families like the one depicted in “In the Land of the Free” can help us make informed and thoughtful decisions about the effects of immigration on our country and our communities.