Abrams Finds Hidden Motives in First U.S. Immigration Law

November 21, 2005

AbramsAmerica's first restrictive federal immigration law used rhetoric about prostitution and polygamy to accomplish a hidden agenda of racial exclusion against Chinese immigrants, according to law professor Kerry Abrams, who spoke Wednesday at a lecture sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Law and the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA).

Despite its status as the first immigration law, the Page Law of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Chinese prostitutes, has received little attention from immigration scholars because it seems to be so narrowly tailored and because it sidesteps the labor and national security issues addressed by later immigration laws, Abrams said.

"On its face at least it only targets prostitutes, although I argue that it really prevents Chinese women in general from migrating here for a long time," Abrams said.

According to Abrams, the Page Law actually targeted not only prostitutes but also other Chinese women who did not "do marriage in the right way." Because of the cultural differences between China and the United States, the law had a heavy impact on all female immigration from China.

The influx of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast started in the late 1840s, first because of the California gold rush and then because of the spike in demand for cheap labor to help build the railroads. Although Chinese prostitution was fairly common, polygamy was just as big a concern for the writers of the Page Law, according to Abrams. Chinese men in America would sometimes send to China for a second wife or a concubine.

"The big worry here is that polygamy leads to despotism," Abrams said. Americans commonly argued that polygamy was incompatible with democracy because the husband in a polygamous marriage was a tyrant.

"[The Page Law] was kind of a sneaky way to regulate immigration, and they did it by saying 'we're protecting the sacred institution of marriage and if we let these people come they're going to ruin the sacred institution of marriage,'" Abrams said.

Before the Page Law, states rather than the federal government generally regulated immigration. California tried taxing Chinese immigrants and then Chinese residents in the state, but the courts struck down both of these laws as examples of federal rather than state power. Then California passed a Chinese prostitution law requiring any Chinese woman who wished to enter the state to get a certificate from China declaring her to be "a woman of good moral character." The courts struck down this law, saying that immigration law was a federal power and that the law violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. However, the equal protection grounds cited by the court had nothing to do with race-based or gender-based discrimination. "It was because it discriminated against people arriving by boat," Abrams said.

When the U.S. government adopted the Page Law — a nearly exact copy of California's law requiring morals certificates — the courts upheld it, and equal protection concerns seemed to drop out of the picture.

"The really brilliant thing about the Page Law is that it's race-neutral on its face," Abrams said, but enforced only against Chinese, Japanese and other "Oriental" women. Because there was practically no immigration from Japan or other Asian countries at the time, the law primarily affected Chinese women.

The certification process for Chinese women was very strict, usually requiring three interviews with officials in Hong Kong. Officials generally denied certification to women who tried to travel alone or with someone other than their husband. Records indicate that the law worked, reducing the influx of Chinese women from several hundred per month to about 15 in three months, Abrams said.

"By regulating Chinese women and by calling them presumptive prostitutes, the Page Law allowed the U.S. to regulate immigration without looking like it was regulating immigration," Abrams said. She explained that the U.S. did not want to damage its trade relations with China by creating a perception of hostility toward Chinese immigrants.

"The law was really more necessary than you might think to exclude the Chinese generally," Abrams said. Although most Chinese immigrants during this period were men, women were an important part of the equation. At the time, Chinese immigrants could not be naturalized, but any children of Chinese immigrants born on U.S. soil would be American citizens. Therefore, Americans who did not mind a transient Chinese labor force as much as they objected to the assimilation of permanent Chinese-American families focused their efforts on keeping out Chinese women.

Seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied entry to male Chinese wage laborers, had a much greater impact on Chinese immigration numbers than the Page Law had. However, even after the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Page Law remained effective at preventing those men who were already here from forming families, Abrams said.

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