Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Well and Favorably Known": Deciphering Chinese Merchant Status in the Immigration Office of Astoria, Oregon, 1900-1924

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Well and Favorably Known": Deciphering Chinese Merchant Status in the Immigration Office of Astoria, Oregon, 1900-1924

Article excerpt

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS in the United States faced unprecedented federal restrictions, beginning in the late nineteenth century, that created significant obstacles to immigration and settlement. The effects of those laws played out through ongoing, individual relationships in the immigration offices of places such as Astoria, Oregon. From 1900 to 1924, individual immigration stations held a significant amount of autonomy, allowing local officials to develop their own methods for evaluating applicants' requests to enter, leave, and re-enter the United States. In Astoria, evidence from 162 separate immigration files shows that immigrants and officials negotiated a system of racial and economic strictures under which Chinese were not only distinguished by class--as required by law--but also within classes. (1) Officials in Astoria sought cted three categories for Chinese businesses. Those categories guided, to a degree, interactions between Chinese and officials in the local office. Local inspectors made heavy use of personal qualities and individual situations to categorize firms and individuals, and the rough process both reflected the merchants' standing in the community and affected the ease or difficulty with which they were able to conduct affairs in the immigration office. (2)

Chinese immigration practices in Astoria were extensions of national exclusion laws that evolved over many decades and peaked in the 1920s. The 1862 Anti-Coolie Law and the 1875 Page Law targeted Chinese slaves and prostitutes, but neither had the sweeping impact of exclusion acts passed between 1882 and 1904 that explicitly denied immigration to all Chinese who did not fit into certain non-laboring categories. (3) The initial 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, as historian Erika Lee has remarked, changed the United States into "a new type of nation," one defined by immigration gatekeeping. (4) Historian Najia Aarim-Heriot asserts that the act functioned as the "hinge on which all subsequent American immigration policy turned and the foundation of American immigration law." The act was originally designed as a ten-year measure but was extended for another decade by the 1892 Geary Act--"the most draconian immigration law ever passed," according to historian Sucheng Chan. (5) Congress added ten years again in 1902, and then passed a permanent extension in 1904. Various other acts, such as the 1888 Scott Act and 1891 Immigration Act, also tightened restrictions on immigration eligibility and complicated the bureaucratic requirements for travel by Chinese already in the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924, where this study ends, instituted national-origins-based quotas for the first time, brought Chinese exclusion to its pinnacle, and extended exclusion policy to include Asians in general. (6) The year 1900 marks a convenient starting place for this study because immigration records before the turn of the century are much less prolific and the processing apparently was less meticulous. The exclusion paradigm stayed in effect until 1943. (7)

Under the exclusion laws beginning in 1882, Chinese laborers were not allowed to enter the United States. An anti-Chinese movement that began during the late nineteenth century singled out laborers specifically as a threat to the white population of the United States; a family-oriented, Euro-American-friendly merchant class was preferable to a large number of male workers who did not speak English well or otherwise conform to many social and cultural norms. (8) Laborers were defined by their activity in certain occupations--a de November 17, 1880, could leave and return if they obtained a special certificate. The right to return was revoked in 1888; but an 1894 treaty provided for the legal return of laborers who could claim one thousand dollars in property or debts owed, or who had a wife, child, or parent living in the United States. (9) Although new laborers were excluded from entering the country during the time under study here, performing manual labor was not illegal for Chinese. …

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