Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law

By Lucy E. Salyer | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The future historian will find one of the most interesting chapters on the jurisprudence of the American Republic to consist in a description and analysis of the writ of habeas corpus as applied to landing Chinamen in violation . . . of the Restriction Acts in the United States courts of California. -- San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 24, 1888

This book explores the social and legal history of restrictive immigration policies and their enforcement in the United States between 1891 and 1924. I could not have predicted a decade ago that my research interests would lead me into immigration history. My primary aim was to explore the roots of the American administrative state in the Progressive Era. When I joined a research team studying the history of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in 1986, I planned to analyze federal judicial responses to the expansion of administrative power in a variety of areas. But as I studied the court docket books, I was struck by the number of cases brought by Chinese litigants contesting the decision of the collector of the port to deny them entry under the Chinese exclusion acts. Christian Fritz, then serving as law clerk to Judge Robert E Peckham and completing a history of the court in its first forty years ( 1851-91), explained that not only had Chinese deluged the court with such challenges (filing more than seven thousand cases in the first decade of the exclusion act's existence), but, even more surprising, the court had ruled in their favor in the vast majority of cases.1 My research into the subsequent history of the court revealed a similar pattern of successful Chinese litigation until 1905. As I examined the Chinese cases in more depth, I became convinced that they revealed a crucial, yet largely overlooked, story in the history of restrictionism and, even more important, given my initial research interests, that they contributed in significant and unexpected ways to the growth of administrative power.

The Chinese cases suggested that although historians have given ample attention to campaigns to enact restrictive immigration policies, they have not given adequate consideration to how the laws were actually enforced by the administrative agencies and the federal courts. From the time the federal government preempted state authority and assumed sole control over immigration in 1891 until the passage of the Quota Act of 1924, Congress enacted increasingly stringent laws designed to exclude "undesirable" im

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