Passages from two classic works of history, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (2d ed., 1963), by John Higham, still the best single study of its subject, and Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933 (1963), by William Preston, Jr., suggest the perception of Chinese Americans in American history-writing a generation ago. In his preface, Higham explains that he “concentrated on the hostility of American nationalists toward European immigrants” because he “regarded opposition to certain non-European peoples, such as the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese, as somewhat separate phenomena, historically tangential to the main currents of American nativism.” Thus, even in an area where significant attention to the Chinese American experience might seem obligatory, that experience was deemed peripheral to the main narrative of American history.
Preston, remarking on the power of deportation exercised vigorously by the Bureau of Immigration in the early decades of the twentieth century, asserts that the bureau was able to act with relative impunity because the aliens whose cases it decided were powerless outsiders: “prostitutes, procurers, lunatics, idiots, paupers . . . Chinese and Japanese. These were in the main friendless, despised, ignorant, defenseless people, and more important, unorganized.” So (with a few exceptions) the Chinese were characterized on those rare occasions when they didenter the narrative of American history.
Today the picture is much different. There are a shelfful of books that place the Chinese American experience in a larger historical context. In Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990 (1993), for example, Bill Ong Hing shows that responses to Chinese immigrants and other Asian immigrants have played a crucial part in every major shift in U.S. immigration policy. Far from being peripheral, Asian Americans are at the center of immigration history, which in turn is central to the shaping of American identity.
Similarly, Charles McClain’s pioneering 1994 study, In Search of Equality: The Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1995), decisively refutes the notion that the Chinese were passive victims of discrimination, “ignorant, defenseless people, and more important, unorganized.” On the contrary, the Chinese were highly organized and extraordinarily resourceful in seeking redress in the courts, where they met with considerable success. Moreover, as McClain shows, these “Chinese legal initiatives” make up “an important facet of U.S. constitutional history,” one that has been largely ignored in the past.
Lucy Salyer’s Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law is another important revisionist study. Salyer’s focus is the U.S. Bureau of Immigration (later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service), from its establishment in 1891, when Congress for the first time granted the federal government “full and exclusive control over immigration,” to the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. Quoting legal scholar Peter Schuck, Salyer describes immigration law as a “maverick” in American legal culture. In Schuck’s words, “probably no other area of American law has been so radically insulated and divergent from those fundamental norms of constitutional right, administrative procedure, and judicial role that animate the rest of our legal system.” Thus, much of Salyer’s account concerns what she regards as the overweening ambitions and overzealous practices of the Bureau of Immigration. Nevertheless, she rejects as simplistic “the basic narrative about developments in immigration law and its administration, which portrays aliens as the defenseless victims of the all-powerful Bureau of Immigration.” Instead, she shows how the administration of immigration law evolved in response to challenges posed by tenacious Chinese litigants.
From its beginnings until the late nineteenth century, the United States admitted immigrants with very few restrictions. Gradually, however, pressure increased to exclude various “undesirables.” In Bill Ong Hing’s mordant summary, “In 1882 Congress passed immigration legislation excluding...
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