4 Key Laws in America’s Troubled History With Immigrants

U.S. Immigration law has a troubled past. Our government has introduced several nefarious acts and laws aimed at halting immigration and curbing rights, particularly those of Asian origin. 

Such restrictive immigration policies and laws, aided by the U.S. Supreme Court's creative adjudication, kept U.S. citizenship from most ethnic groups solely on the basis of race, nation of origin or gender. In the discussion below I will summarize four of the most surprising laws of the day.

1. The Page Act (1875)

The Page Act of 1875 has been recognized as the first federal anti-immigration law and was covertly aimed at disrupting Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. to perform work made available by the Gold Rush and large projects such as the Transcontinental Railroad construction.  Purportedly passed to reduce female prostitutes among the largely male Chinese worker population, the Act had the opposite effect by virtually eliminating the immigration of all Chinese women to America.

2. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

Anti-Chinese sentiment subsequently reached its tipping point with Congress’ passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (revisions and expansions in 1884, 1886 and 1888) which contained the some of the most significant restrictions placed on any group or ethnicity in U.S. Immigration history. The act suspended immigration of Chinese laborers and barred reentry of all other Chinese laborers in the U.S. after the passage of the Act (a small number were subsequently allowed reentry with special certifications). Chinese immigrants seeking admission to the U.S. were burdened with the surreal task of establishing that they did not fall within the Act’s craftily constructed definition of ineligible immigrants which included, "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining." 

In the rare event that Chinese immigrants were successful in surmounting all obstacles to the U.S., their lives here likely precluded starting or reunifying with a family. As well, life would have been increasingly unbearable owing to other anti-Chinese laws such as the Geary Act. 

Like the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also had unintended effects, helping establish the first large-scale human smuggling ring in America. Intended to last 10 years, the act was repealed in 1943, to improve relations with the Chinese during WWII, at which point 105 visas per year were graciously allowed to Chinese immigrants and some Chinese Immigrants were granted Citizenship. However, it was not until 1965 that Chinese-Americans in all states could own businesses and property.

3. The Immigration Act of 1924

The Immigration Act of 1924 (including the Asian Exclusion Act and The National Origins Act) was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge and added more potent Anti-Immigration measures upon the recently introduced Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 which had established the first per-country immigration quota.  The 1924 Act allowed immigrant visas amounting to only two percent of the total of any given country's nationals already living in the U.S. as of the 1890 census. The act also plainly rejected admission to all immigrants with origins in the Asia–Pacific Triangle, including Japan, India, Korea, China, Sri Lanka, Singapore and the Philippines using the Nationality Act of 1790 and 1906 as a legal basis, which affirmed that only “whites” could be considered for Citizenship. Such a plain bar was necessary as interesting challenges from Asians on the definition of “whiteness” had already been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court at this point, which had been required to engage in contortions of logic when adapting the definition of whiteness for each case.

For example, in Ozawa v. United States, Mr. Ozawa had argued in favor of reclassifying the Japanese as a white race, so as to render him eligible for U.S. Citizenship. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the argument, holding that the Japanese could not be considered Caucasian.  However, a year later, in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), in which Mr. Thind, an Indian Sikh, made a similar argument the U.S. Supreme Court held that while Mr. Thind could be considered Caucasian, he could not be considered white. 

The Court's holding resulted not only in failure for Mr. Thind, but also the few Indians who had earned U.S. Citizenship: they were denaturalized. One such case included Mr. Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar, an Indian American lecturer, prolific writer and the first Indian-born person to earn U.S. citizenship.

4. Japanese Relocation and Internment (1942)

In 1942, following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor and fearing the possibility of a fifth column that could commit sabotage against the U.S., President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the U.S. Secretary of War to designate regions of the U.S. as military zones, and within said zones, forcibly remove, exclude, confine and subject to curfew any individual regardless of ancestry or country of citizenship. 

The vast majority affected, 120,000, were Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans (the majority of which were U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents). These individuals were taken from their homes and deported to 10 concentration camps located across the Western U.S. Region and Hawaii, there surrounded by walls, gun wielding guards and barbed wire. The inmates were provided no due process or explanation. Unsurprisingly (for the day), the U.S. Supreme Court again sanctified racial discrimination by siding with the government in the controversial case Korematsu v. United States. The case has yet to be expressly overturned.