Considering History: How Immigration Laws Can Destroy American Families

America’s tangled history of immigration laws has affected not only individuals, but also families and entire communities.

Early 20th century illustration of immigrants

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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.

Chinese women and children in a holding cell
Chinese women and children in a holding room on the Angel Island detention facility. (California Historical Society)

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.

Uncle Sam and racist depictions of Chinese immigrants
A political cartoon from 1886 referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act. (The George Dee Magic Washing Machine Company, Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Yung Wing
Yung Wing. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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  1. My parent were immigrants. The 1924 Immigration Law listed the quotas from various nations. My mother came under the quota for Finland of only 100 per year in 1928. She spoke almost no English but was employed as a domestic for a family all through the Depression. She learned English on her own and acquired Citizenship in 1943. My father worked as a merchant seaman during the 1930s, and learned English during that time. He landed in the 1940 unable to to return to his native land, Estonia. The quota for Estonia was 100 per year. He was drafted in 1942 even though he was not a citizen. He received his Citizenship in 1943 due to his military service. My wife is an immigrant from Vietnam. She was allowed entry because other family members were already citizens from their arrival in the mid 1960s. She quickly achieved Citizenship as a refugee and a boat person. What is wrong with the current immigration debate is that laws on the books along with over 2 dozen visa listings has been haphazardly enforced. Various immigration offices being either lax or overzealous in interpreting the regulations. Politicians promise each ethnic group what that group wants to hear. People care little about the currents laws, only what their own personal agenda is, and having the elected officials follow their wants. A wall never stops anyone, but following the current laws correctly and rewriting regulations and laws to reflect current world events. We want to bring in tens of thousands of un-vetted people because they are refugees from a war zone. Who helped escalate this war zone, why our own politicians. In 1940s, Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler Europe were turned away from our shores and suffered on their return to Europe. Things don’t change, only the players involved at that time.

  2. Canada also has a history of bigotry in our immigration laws. Hopefully, we have grown beyond this and will welcome people of all races who wish to be new Canadians.

  3. Hi Paradise Lost,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll note that another thing revealed by our history is that such anti-immigrant attitudes and narratives have been present literally throughout our past–Ben Franklin warned of the threats posed to Pennsylvania by German immigrants in the 1750s, to cite just one of the countless such examples. The 19th century anti-Chinese sentiments were likewise very much tied to images of crime and disease and vice, of a community that wanted to stay entirely separate and remake the nation in its image, etc.

    Each and every time, these narratives have been proven false, indeed the opposite of what immigrant communities contribute and bring. So I would caution us against buying into them once again, and certainly against doing so without close attention to specifics, evidence, realities, rather than narratives or images or fears.


  4. What few writers will openly admit is how widespread the hatred of immigration is, some claim with good reason that we are importing poverty, crime and social unrest. Others argue that immigration is a good thing, but behind the scenes, they make sure that their own children do not marry a foreigner or someone from another religion. Whats interesting to watchers is the custom amongst priests, rabbis and imams to openly preach the message not to marry out of the faith or community. One major faith argues that it’s members must not enter a church or marry out of the faith, and openly claims that Christian man’s food is unclean and must not be eaten. They are known to refuse converts to their faith, yet their leaders claim to deplore any form of racism when it occurs? We the public have eyes that can see what is happening on the streets, that we are alarmed by the ever-mounting immigrant crime figures and we know the makeup of prison populations and schools nationwide. And we must admit defeat and accept that matters will only get worse.

  5. This is quite an insightful piece that demonstrates how fictional works truly offer a real glimpse into national histories. It’s interesting how such exclusionary laws construct such binaries (legal/illegal) that obfuscate the very real tragedies that happen to families; it’s much easier to label a person an illegal immigrant than it is to recognize them as a sympathetic person with strong filial obligations. America is truly a multifoliate cultural identity, and I appreciate how you highlighted the 65 law that took this truth into account. Great post!

  6. PS. Just wanted to add that I will always greatly appreciate, value, and try to respond to any and all comments on my posts. Thanks!



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