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1917 - Asiatic Barred Act

The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, designated much of Asia and the Pacific Islands as areas from which people could not enter the U.S. except Filipinos who, from 1906, were being recruited as cheap labor both in Hawai'i and on the mainland. Employers could do so because the Philippines had been "acquired" from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish American War and subdued as a U.S. territory after nearly a decade of vicious fighting known as the Philippine American War. As American nationals, Filipinos were free to be recruited and to enter the U.S until Congress voted, in 1936, to make the Philippines a Commonwealth for a period of ten years and then grant independence. This action came, however, with the proviso that only 50 Filipinos per year could enter the U.S. and ended the ability of cheaper Philippine goods and labor from freely entering the U.S. market. So, with modest revisions, the exclusion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remained official American policy until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Because of the severity and length, nearly a century, of the exclusion period, the immigration processing center on the West Coast was very different from Ellis Island on the East Coast in New York City. Where tens of millions of immigrants, most from Europe, passed under the welcoming visage of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island in California was in place from 1910 to 1940 largely to detain people and discourage immigration. The Chinese were a particular target especially once the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been passed, extended, and then made permanent. One response by Chinese immigrants was the invention of citizenship through assertion of birth.

Any Chinese immigrant who had been born in China to a father who was a U.S. citizen could claim citizen status and would be allowed to enter the country. Immigrants whose fathers were not U.S. citizens would buy papers identifying them as children of male Chinese American citizens. Because official records were almost non-existent, largely due to the disastrous earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906, these "paper sons" and "paper daughters" would go through an interrogation process at the U.S. Immigration Station and, if they passed, would be allowed to enter the country as citizens.

But the practice soon alerted officials to suspect all entering Chinese and to devise devilishly intricate questions to trick them into revealing the alleged fraud. This, in turn, led to a substantial cottage industry of "coaching books" to be memorized by those seeking entry. Would-be immigrants memorized such trivial details as the number of windows in the rear bedroom facing east or the number of stone steps in the walkway between the front door and the peach tree in the yard. As a result, well-prepared paper sons and daughters succeeded in duping immigration officials while some genuine children of real citizens were deported.

Indeed, while a wide variety of national groups entered the U.S. via Angel Island, including Russians, Mexicans, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese, the most distinctive stories are of Chinese immigrants and the days, weeks, or months of grueling interrogation they endured. Some of these experiences remain as poems rendered in classical Chinese carved into the walls of Angel Island's barracks.

World War II witnessed the formal end of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1943, Congress allowed current Chinese residents to apply for naturalization and permitted an annual total of 105 Chinese to enter the country although unlike other "nationality" groups, that quota was applied to all Chinese entering from any country, not just from China.

The national refusal to admit Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on an equal basis with peoples from other regions of the globe lasted until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which ended nearly a full century of exclusion and restriction.

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Page last modified: 29-11-2017 19:31:02 ZULU