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

By Lucy E. Salyer | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 2
Contesting Exclusion THE CHINESE AND THE ADMINISTRATORS

From the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to its repeal in 1943, Chinese and federal administrative officials clashed over how the law should be interpreted and enforced. They were natural enemies with diametrically opposed goals: Chinese wanted to come to the United States as freely as possible while the federal officials attempted to restrict their entry. Frustration with the law on both sides fanned the dispute. Chinese resented the discriminatory law, described by one Chinese poet detained at Angel Island as a law "harsh as tigers."1 The federal administrators, however, repeatedly complained that the law was "probably the most difficult piece of legislation to enforce ever placed upon the statute books."2 If the law was a tiger, as the Chinese poet claimed, administrative officials thought its teeth dull and full of gaps.

Though apparently contradictory, both perspectives were grounded in reality; the law was both harsh and difficult to enforce. The law's severity stemmed in part from its discriminatory nature. By 1891 the Chinese were the only group of immigrants to be specifically excluded from the United States. American officials made it even more difficult for Chinese to enter through their stringent enforcement of the law. Yet officials did not find their task as America's gatekeepers simple or easy. Through protest, evasion, and, especially, persistent litigation, Chinese often thwarted the exclusion policy.

This chapter explores the contest between Chinese and administrative officials over the implementation of the exclusion laws. It analyzes the perspectives, goals, and organization of both groups, as well as the strategies they employed to pursue their objectives. One important Chinese

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