Race, Space & Place: How Chinese Exclusion and Restrictionism Influence American Anxieties Around Immigration

When analyzing contemporary socio-economic and political issues, it is important to address the histories that shape mainstream national ideologies. Once adopted, these histories highly influence policies relevant to the nation as a whole. Thus, within this blog series I will highlight some of the often ignored historical influences that have guided popular national perceptions of immigration. With that, I will also analyze how these historical methods have shaped immigration policy and how they are utilized by politicians and corporations to lobby for and justify the privatization of for-profit detention facilities that house thousands of migrants today.

As a continuation of my last blog within this text I will discuss the ways in which the previously articulated notions surrounding race, space, and place later fed American anxieties. These anxieties helped originate the U.S. “gatekeeping ideology” that led to the first racialized and class-based discriminatory restrictionist immigration policy and later the U.S. Census. From this framework I will analyze the ways that these historical ideologies shape current perceptions around race, space, place and immigration.


Following the first wave of migration to what’s now U.S. territory, (mainly) by Northern and Western Europeans up until about the 1870’s, racial and class-based fears surrounding immigration of non-skilled workers began to arise. In 1882, prior to the installation of the U.S. Census,  in response to a recent spike in Chinese migration to the U.S., Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibiting immigration by Chinese laborers who were not: merchants, students, teachers, travelers, and diplomats. This became both the first restrictionist immigration law and the first law to restrict groups of people based on both race and class.

This migration to the U.S. had a multitude of economic and other influences that helped spark these fears to the extent that non-Anglo white Italians immigrating to the U.S. were eventually labeled, “The Chinese of Europe” by prominent political figures, highlighting the (then) importance for maintaining white racial purity. H. N. Clement, an attorney in San Francisco in the 1870’s first referenced the need to “close America’s gates” by describing the Chinese immigrants as “forever alien,” “threatening” and inferior on the basis of: race, culture, labor, and gender, and later ethnicity, class, sexuality, moral standing, health, and  political affiliation. (Lee pp.38) In Ericka Lee’s, The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924 entry in the 2002 Journal of American Ethnic History, Lee argues that Chinese exclusion introduced a “gatekeeping ideology” which, “transformed the ways in which Americans viewed and thought about race, immigration and the United States’ identity as a nation of immigration. (Lee pp.37)

Similar nativist and restrictionist arguments were later used against other immigrant groups from the Japanese, Southern and Western Europeans, Koreans, Indians, Mexicans and Central Americans in most recent years. Lee later states, “Understanding the racialized origins of American gatekeeping provides a powerful counter-narrative to the popular “immigrant paradigm” which celebrates the United States as a ‘nation of immigrants’ & views immigration as a fulfillment of the promise of American democracy.” (Lee pp.40) As a national ideology its hard to refute that we identify as a nation of immigrants with the lovely "melting pot" analogy, where "anything is possible" and one can achieve whatever they want in life as long as they work hard enough for it and want it badly enough. This 'Myth of Meritocracy' that is so fundamental to the American Dream ideology still persists today, despite the pretty unfavorably static mobility rates in the U.S.

This national ideology behind the "American Dream" conveniently however, happens to forget a history of Colonialism and the origins of the American Capitalist market established and compounded on Black slave labor and Indigenous genocide. With this, the melting pot notion also ignores how historically the U.S. has primarily been open to large migration from White European countries that could help to maintain white racial purity. Essentially the buck stopped there when the Chinese and other People of Color (POC) tried to come and share a piece of the American Dream pie.

This paradigm that Lee articulates is a continuing reality of today that some who wish to immigrate to the U.S. either aren’t aware of or are willing to risk it for. Because the United States of America maintains the ideology that it's a nation of immigrants, this depiction can be seen throughout mainstream media and is consumed internationally, thus reifying the immigrant paradigm. Lee also describes the conceptions surrounding the notions that call for the need to "contain" the "threat" of immigration, ultimately drawing a parallel between immigration and a contagious virus or disease, thereby making health another focal point of American immigration anxieties.

A more recent example of this, being the latest reaction to the introduction of Ebola in the U.S. and the anxious responses of Right wing media calling for restrictionism from their Western space of privilege, while thousands of black and brown bodies suffer internationally. Politically placed fears around difference and threat to "national security"  are both racialized and echoed similarly in regards to the Central American children that attempted migration to the U.S. this past summer, fears that are often the product of news propaganda and its dominating influence over mainstream media. The possibility of one migrant child having a disease is reason enough to throw them all (women, children and families alike) into a jail cell right?

Etymological parallels such as this one, help to reinforce the negative connotations associated with immigration while bolstering American anxieties around race, place, difference, otherness and threat. This containment theory is then reinforced by politicians who argue that to be part of the American national identity, one must wish to "protect our borders" from these alleged "threats."

The irony of our man-made borders, in this case at least, is that many of the migrants fleeing Central America have indigenous ancestry, which, in a way, gives them more of a right to inhabit U.S. territory than the Europeans who have "established" this heteronormative, patriarchal, white supremacist society to begin with. This is further complicated by the U.S. influence that helped lead to the spike in gang and governmental violence that forced thousands of migrants to flee Central America.

This gatekeeping ideology calling for increased border protection also seems to allude to the threat of international terrorism, another American anxiety bred in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers. Traumatic as it was, these anxieties were also bolstered by media propaganda and restrictionist political action post 9/11 which can and has resulted in the acceptance of these ideological understandings around Americans as superior and therefore more deserving of "our" resources through a nationalist lens. This in turn can lead more groups to support politicians who reinforce these ideologies while maintaining the enforcement of discriminatory policies that negatively affect the lives of ethnic minorities, immigrants and other oppressed groups.

These historical comparisons, underlined with notions of racial, linguistic, moral and cultural American superiority help shape the perceptions that vast groups of Americans adopt and thus vote in favor of, often meaning swift deportation, family detention, human rights violation (courtesy of Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and stricter restrictionist immigration policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act, and the perceptions around race, place and immigration that influenced it’s inception at the time helped contribute to the origination of the U.S. Census which I will delineate at a later time. Similarly, mainstream news media coverage, past and present, often focuses on the economic and legal implications of immigration to the U.S.

This narrow lens however, ignores the vast Human Rights violations taking place in immigrant detention facilities across the United States. In my next posts I will discuss how the "gatekeeping ideology" paved the way for the start of the U.S. Census and how it has been continually used to reinforce the denigration, racialization and criminalization of immigrants peoples (especially from Latin America) of today and how that is utilized by politicians and large corporations to benefit largely from contemporary restrictionist immigration policies and thus immigrant detention and incarceration.