First Arrivals, First Reactions
In the half-century between the California Gold Rush and the War of 1898, young men primarily from China and Japan flocked to the western states to fill an untold number of jobs brought about by America’s push across the continent. The West was sparsely populated, and demand for labor was high. The influx of Asian workers, however, created a volatile mix of hostility and resentment among the region’s white population that reverberated across the next few generations. On Capitol Hill, such anxieties were routinely codified into law. Even though America was home to thousands of Asian immigrants, they were almost completely prohibited from participating in the political process and were frequently ostracized from American society.
Beginning in 1849, Chinese immigrants came to California for the same reason everyone else did: to get rich mining gold. But when the federal government began a spirited race to build the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, American companies hired Chinese laborers by the thousands.5 Chinese merchants followed, setting up shops that catered to the immigrants. Many became labor brokers themselves.6 In 1868 the United States and China negotiated the Treaty of Trade, Consuls, and Emigration, known as the Burlingame Treaty, which established a reciprocal relationship for the movement of people and goods between the two countries.7
The influx of Chinese into California during the 1850s and 1860s did not sit well with the white frontier population. The two groups were vastly different, and what white Californians did not understand they began to fear. It was not long before an anti-Chinese movement took root. In response, the California legislature produced an astonishing crop of laws hostile to the Chinese that raised taxes, discouraged immigration, restricted educational opportunities, and limited due process.8
When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, thousands of Chinese laborers were suddenly left unemployed. Many returned to the West Coast, where anti-Chinese violence and labor unrest soon flared up. In late October 1871, for instance, “the largest mass lynching in U.S. history,” as described by historian Erika Lee, took place in Los Angeles when a mob of 500 killed 17 Chinese in response to the shooting of a police officer.9
Over the next decade, Congress clamped down on Chinese immigration, recommending changes to both the Burlingame Treaty and existing immigration laws.10 Presidential administrations went along with the effort by negotiating a new treaty ratified in 1881 that empowered Congress to “regulate, limit, or suspend” the flow of Chinese laborers into America.11
That year Congress doubled down on its anti-Chinese position and passed a bill that closed Chinese labor immigration for 20 years and excluded Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. Business interests pushed back and President Chester A. Arthur vetoed the measure, but he hinted that a shorter suspension would work. Within months, a new bill had been approved that closed Chinese immigration for 10 years.12
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 imposed the first restrictions on immigration in U.S. history. Like clockwork, Congress extended its provisions, including the citizenship prohibition, every 10 years. With the backing of the Supreme Court, subsequent renewals and amendments expanded the original act.13 By 1892 Congress had streamlined deportation procedures and required Chinese immigrants to carry a certificate of residence. Six years later, Congress banned Chinese laborers living in Hawaii from entering the mainland. The ban against Chinese immigrants became permanent in 1904.14
Japanese Immigration and Exclusion
During the 19th century, Japan modernized its economy and, in the process, became a rising world power. Following Chinese exclusion, significant numbers of Japanese came to the United States to attend America’s schools and work as diplomats and entrepreneurs. Unlike China, which had a weak central state and thus did not closely monitor its citizens living abroad, Japan’s government, with its strong administrative structure, played an active role recruiting and vetting immigrants. In an effort to make sure Japanese immigrants avoided the kind of discrimination that befell the Chinese, Japanese envoys regularly checked on living conditions in the States.15
At the time, the Japanese presence on the mainland remained small and never approached the number of Chinese living on the West Coast, although their numbers in Hawaii before annexation were substantial.16 The vigilance of the Japanese government, which included formal inquiries and high-level diplomacy, helped solve problems before they worsened. America’s expanding territorial footprint in the Pacific also contributed to the relationship: Washington sought to maintain good relations with Japan rather than risk its interests in the Philippines.17
Combined, those factors help explain the early lack of widespread anti-Japanese agitation beyond a few local hot spots like San Francisco, where several violent incidents occurred in the 1890s. By 1900, however, Japanese immigration had been swept up into larger anti-Asian movements.18 “Chinese and Japanese … are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made,” proclaimed San Francisco Mayor and future U.S. Senator James D. Phelan, ignoring the reality that the Constitution conferred citizenship to the children of Asian immigrants born in America. Although the Japanese government responded by halting passports for laborers, immigrants continued to travel freely from America’s territories to the mainland.19
As more and more Japanese immigrants arrived to work on the West Coast, anti-Japanese agitation took hold especially in California, where the state government routinely petitioned Congress for wholesale Japanese exclusion.20 Despite a short period of goodwill after Japan gave San Francisco a substantial donation to recover from a massive earthquake, anti-Japanese policies soon reemerged.21 In the fall of 1906, the San Francisco board of education announced that all Japanese children would attend segregated schools.22 Japan’s government criticized the measure, and in just a short while the United States had been whipped into a full-blown war scare before the city finally rescinded the segregation order. Only a few months later tempers flared again when mobs of California nativists attacked Japanese businesses during a San Francisco streetcar strike.23 War threatened again, but President Theodore Roosevelt defused the situation before it escalated.24
Roosevelt was ever the optimist, but it all led him to a distressing thought: “I have been reluctantly forced to the conclusion that it is indispensable for the Japanese to be kept from coming in any numbers as settlers to the United States.”25
Alien Land Laws and Citizenship
During the first two decades of the 20th century, the state of California enhanced its already stringent anti-Asian policies and explored ways to restrict the property rights of Japanese immigrants, further excluding them from American society.26
The process culminated in 1913, when the state government passed an act prohibiting “aliens ineligible to citizenship”—almost universally people of Asian descent—from owning land in California. As U.S. nationals, Filipinos were eligible for entry in the United States, but still ineligible for naturalization. Other states, particularly Oregon and Washington, passed their own laws based on California’s formula.27
As a result, many issei—first-generation Japanese immigrants—registered property in the name of their native-born children. Others had to lease or own land using a corporation held in trust for their children. But California closed even these loopholes in 1920.28
The federal courts, moreover, sided with the states. In November 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld both California’s and Washington’s alien land laws as well as a handful of other restrictions. Over the next two decades, California strengthened its property laws, even going so far as to seize land and assets from Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.29
But by the late 1940s, public opinion on the issue had started to shift, and the federal courts began reversing their earlier decisions. On April 17, 1952, in Sei Fujii v. California, the California supreme court declared the land laws unconstitutional. California voters finally erased the policy in a public referendum in November 1956. Washington State removed the country’s last alien land law in 1966.30
At the root of the issue were the country’s qualifications for citizenship, and for much of U.S. history, the courts severely circumscribed who was eligible to become a naturalized citizen. For 80 years (1790–1870) only “free white persons” qualified. In 1870 Congress added “persons of African descent.”31 For Asian immigrants, in the second half of the 19th century there was no standard national practice. At the time, local judges determined who was eligible for naturalization on a case-by-case basis. As immigrant numbers increased early in the 20th century, national eligibility requirements became a major issue. In a handful of cases that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, Asian-American leaders decided to test whether Japanese immigrants could be classified as “white” for purposes of naturalization.32
In the early 1920s, the Supreme Court decided two significant cases that demonstrated the historical malleability of ideas about race. In Ozawa v. United States, the court validated the category of “aliens ineligible to citizenship” by arguing that, “The federal and state courts, in an almost unbroken line, have held that the words ‘white person’ [in the 1870 Naturalization Act] were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”33 This 1922 decision meant that Takao Ozawa could not classify as white and was disqualified from naturalized citizenship.34 A year later, in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant from the Punjab in India-who had served in the U.S. Army during World War I-claimed the right to become a naturalized American citizen. The Justices, however, unanimously agreed that Thind’s ethnicity fell beyond the bounds of what “the common man” understood to classify as white. In doing so, the court upheld the ban against Thind, in particular, and Asian Indians, generally.35
Toward Total Exclusion
At a policy level, citizenship remained perhaps the most powerful tool at Congress’s disposal and, during the 1910s, the national legislature completely overhauled the country’s immigration laws. For the first time, the federal government prohibited people from whole areas of the globe—not just individual countries—from coming to America. During World War I, fears of espionage and sabotage encouraged the United States to clamp down on visas, giving Congress time to consider bigger and broader reform. With the Immigration Act of 1924, the effort to codify total bans culminated in a restrictive national origins quota system built on the legal invention of “aliens ineligible for citizenship” popular in various state laws.
As anti-Asian feelings grew more pronounced, immigrants from India—many of whom began arriving in the United States in the 1890s—became one of the first groups affected by the new laws. At the time, federal immigration restrictions fell into two categories: generalized groups (for example, paupers and anarchists) and individual nationalities (for example, Japanese and Chinese). But, by 1911, Asian Indians had become a category all their own. As a new target for exclusionists, the government classified them as “Hindu” no matter their religion or ethnicity.36
Congress went even further and passed the Immigration Act of 1917, creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” that excluded Chinese, Asian Indians, Burmese, Thai,and Malays and extended to parts of Russia, the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan, Polynesia, and all East Indian islands—about 500 million people in total. The Woodrow Wilson administration omitted Japan because its immigrants already faced a number of prohibitions. The law also exempted the Philippines since its residents, as members of an American territory, were U.S. nationals and legally eligible to move to the States.37
The eruption of World War I also had a pronounced effect on the number of people coming to the States. Immigration rates dropped during the war, encouraging Congress to build on the Asiatic Barred Zone and consider ways to close America’s borders completely. But reform attempts struggled to get off the ground, and in 1920 Congress abandoned its crusade for an outright ban. Instead, it settled on a legislative formula creating a national origins quota system.38
After the White House changed hands in 1921, the Republican Congress, working with the new Republican presidential administration of Warren G. Harding, redoubled its efforts to overhaul America’s immigration policy. Within a month of being introduced, the national origins quota system became law on May 19, 1921.39 The quota law set total annual immigration at 355,000, or 3 percent of the foreign-born population during the last Census in 1910. Federal officials used the same calculus to determine the number of immigrants allowed on a nation-by-nation basis.40
Immigration hard-liners who had long opposed Asian immigration began worrying that America would experience a surge of refugees from hard-hit southern and eastern Europe after the war. In 1923 President Calvin Coolidge called for new legislation in order to limit immigration completely, and Congress quickly obliged. In the House, the Immigration and Naturalization Committee, led by Albert Johnson of Washington, who had long opposed Japanese immigration, began working on ways to tighten the quota system, pushing the baseline numbers back from the 1910 Census to the 1890 Census, which were lower and would therefore be more restrictive.41
On March 17, 1924, after a stalled first effort, Chairman Johnson introduced H.R. 7995, the committee’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. The legislation filled in policy gaps, but, more importantly, devised a quota system organized by nationality that limited future immigration to a small fraction of the foreign-born population in 1890. Moreover, to effectively bar immigration from Japan, the legislation adopted the legal definition of “aliens ineligible to citizenship” popular in the Pacific states.42
The problem, however, was that Japan had become a global power whose naval strength trailed only the United States and Britain. State Department officials feared that, if the bill became law, whatever cooperation existed between America and Japan in their work to maintain political stability in the Pacific basin would end.43 Nevertheless, the bill cruised through the House, passing 323 to 71. When the White House and the Japanese ambassador tried to pressure the Senate into removing the clause, the plan backfired. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the immediate exclusion clause. President Coolidge signed the immigration bill into law on May 26, 1924.44
As enacted, the Johnson–Reed Act limited annual immigration to the United States to 165,000, but placed few restrictions on people from the Western Hemisphere. For the remaining transatlantic migrants, their admission quota was set at 2 percent of the total number of foreign-born nationals living in the United States in 1890. The new law closed America’s borders to all Japanese men, women, and children. Combined with the earlier Chinese exclusion acts and the Asiatic Barred Zone, Congress’s new Japanese exclusion clause had effectively stopped transpacific immigration to all but Filipinos.45
The impact of the law was arguably greatest in Japan, where many resented the section that singled them out as “an inferior race.”46 Somewhat optimistically, the Japanese government expected the immigration restriction to relax over time as the commercial interests between Japan and the United States strengthened. Nevertheless, Japan began viewing the United States, instead of the Soviet Union, as its primary military and naval adversary.47 That shift would have devastating consequences for America’s two major Pacific territories—the Philippines and Hawaii—during World War II.
But even the Philippines and Hawaii, which the United States assumed control over at the turn of the century, were not immune to some level of exclusion during the 40 years preceding the war. Beginning in 1898, the experience of the United States in the Philippines and Hawaii legalized the convergence of exclusionary practices at home and abroad as ideas about race and empire conflicted with American traditions of democracy and self-government.
5Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993): 196; Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015): 65, 72.
6Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, 1998): 35–36.
7Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002): 93; Treaty of Trade, Consuls, and Emigration, U.S.-China, 16 Stat. 739 (1868).
8Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1939; repr., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991): 25–39; David Haward Bain, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: Penguin Books, 1999): 206.
9Bain, Empire Express: 640, 671; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 93.
10Charles S. Campbell, Transformation of American Foreign Relations, 1865–1900 (New York: Harper and Row, 1975): 114; Lawrence H. Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation (1946; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1967): 353; Robert A. Divine, American Immigration Policy, 1924–1952 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957): 19–20.
11Justus D. Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1981): 82; Campbell, Transformation of American Foreign Relations: 116n30; Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988): 55; 22 Stat. 826 (1880).
12Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998): 222–223; Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement in California: 92; Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 354; Campbell, Transformation of American Foreign Relations: 116n33, 117; Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003): 122; Chinese Exclusion Act, 22 Stat. 58 (1882).
13For legal examples, see Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893) and Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889). In the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898), the Supreme Court upheld the Fourteenth Amendment in which a child born in the United States became an American citizen even if his or her parents were Chinese aliens. Melvin I. Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 487–488; Daniels, Asian America: 58; Morton Keller, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977): 444; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 84–85.
14Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 137; Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement in California: 106–108; Daniels, Asian America: 112.
15Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991): 11; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 46; Daniels, Asian America: 104–105, 109.
16The 1890 U.S. Census, for example, listed just 1,147 Japanese living in California. See Daniels, Asian America: 112.
17Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1980): 133, 146, 203–204; Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011): 12–13.
18Daniels, Asian America: 109–110, 112.
19Ibid., 112; Raymond A. Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966): 129.
20Roger Daniels, Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962): 8, 22, 113; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 200–201.
21Charles E. Neu, An Uncertain Friendship: Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, 1906–1909 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967): 23, 130; Daniels, Politics of Prejudice: 32–33.
22Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990): 256–257; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 201.
23Neu, Uncertain Friendship: 62, 66–67, 79; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 201–203.
24Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt: 252; Neu, Uncertain Friendship: 79–80; Daniels, Politics of Prejudice: 95; Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 369.
25Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan: 295.
26Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 203; Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan: 287–291.
27Lee, The Making of Asian America: 132; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 206–207.
28Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 205. The individual cases are: Terrace v. Thompson, 263 U.S. 197 (1923);Porterfield v. Webb, 263 U.S. 225 (1923); Webb v. O’Brien, 263 U.S. 313 (1923); and Frick v. Webb, 263 U.S. 326 (1923). See Chan, Asian Americans: 47.
29Chan, Asian Americans: 95–96; Daniels, Asian America: 298–299; David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992): 18–19.
30Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 412–413; Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999): 55, 249n11.
31Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois tried to extend naturalization privileges to Chinese immigrants, but it was voted down. Daniels, Asian America: 43, 43n31.
32Yuji Ichioka, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885–1924 (New York: Free Press, 1988): 216; Chan, Asian Americans: 47, 92–93.
33Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922): 197.
34Ichioka, The Issei: 221; Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922): 198; Daniels, Politics of Prejudice: 98.
35United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923): 214–215; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 299; Chan, Asian Americans: 94.
36Chan, Asian Americans: 55; Michael E. Parrish, Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994): 110; Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993): 32.
37Lee, The Making of Asian America: 171; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 174; Daniels, Asian America: 149–150; Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America: 70.
38John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988): 302, 304–307, 309–311; Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 367–369; Tichenor, Dividing Lines: 142–143; Daniels, Coming to America: 280; Presidential Vetoes, 1789–1976 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978): 216.
39Daniels, Politics of Prejudice: 95; Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 369; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 183; Public Law 67-5, 42 Stat. 5 (1921).
40Parrish, Anxious Decades: 112; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 134.
41Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 369; Higham, Strangers in the Land: 319; Parrish, Anxious Decades: 112.
42Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 370–371; Higham, Strangers in the Land: 310–321; Parrish, Anxious Decades: 112; Daniels, Coming to America: 282–283.
43Akira Iriye, After Imperialism: The Search for a New Order in the Far East, 1921–1931 (1965; repr., Chicago, IL: Imprint Publications, 1990): 35.
44Parrish, Anxious Decades: 112; Chamberlain, President, Congress and Legislation: 371–373; Immigration Act of 1924, Public Law 68-139, 43 Stat. 153 (1924).
45Lee, The Making of Asian America: 135; Yuka Fujioka, “The Thought War: Public Diplomacy by Japan’s Immigrants in the United States,” in Tumultuous Decade: Empire, Society, and Diplomacy in 1930s Japan, ed. Masato Kimura and Tosh Minohara (Toronto, CN: University of Toronto Press, 2013): 164.
46Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 210.
47Akira Iriye, Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American-East Asian Relations (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967): 115, 152–153.