Undated photo, Chinese family portrait in early California, archived in Humboldt Library.
Imagine this headline: Bank President Imprisoned for Employing Lawfully Admitted Chinese. This situation arose in 1879, when the president of the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company, a California corporation, was arrested for employing lawfully admitted Chinese. The Chinese were admitted after the U.S. and China signed the Burlingame Treaty. This bilateral agreement gave Chinese visa-holders the right to work in the U.S. and a reciprocal right to Americans. The Chinese came here for employment in mines, on railroads, and doing laundry; the Americans went to China as Christian missionaries.
Like our national climate today, a wave of anti-immigrant attitudes took hold in the 1870s. California was a hotbed of intolerance. The state’s constitution was amended to include a total bar against employing Chinese. One section forbade the direct or indirect employment of “any Chinese or Mongolians.” Another section declared: “The presence of foreigners ineligible to become citizens is declared to be dangerous to the well-being of this state, and the legislature shall discourage their immigration by all the means within its power.” A federal court freed the banker, finding that the state criminal code conflicted with a national treaty. But the nation followed California’s racist lead over the next 80 years. It passed and re-enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act; and when agricultural groups imported Japanese laborers, Congress answered with a broader “Asiatic Exclusion Zone.”
This law was furthered broadened in 1924, when Congress set a strict quota on worldwide immigration. Italians and Eastern Europeans, mainly Jews—many of whom had few skills, spoke no English, and were perceived to be something other than white— were blocked in their efforts to come to America.
These insular and overtly racist laws were rolled back eventually after World War II. By 1965, America’s current version of global immigration became law.
The Orwellian-named RAISE Act, proposed by Sen. David Perdue (R.-GA.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R.-AR.), is a warmed-over version of the 1924 law, with its quota feature, and skills requirements. More subtly, it mimics the Asiatic exclusionary laws with its English-speaking requirement. Beneath its grandiose justification offered at the White House this past week, the bill signifies a return to white skin color as the primary criterion for the nation’s immigration laws.
The biggest difference between the insular immigration laws from the 1880s-1940s and now is that today’s economy is global. Starting now, other nations will use the RAISE Act to their raise their competitive advantage by welcoming the immigrants we shoo away. If enacted, the law will raise the age of our already older population, further straining our Social Security system and age-related benefits plans. Yes, the RAISE Act would admit merit-based applicants; but its very low numerical limits are certain to deprive the U.S. of younger talent. Enacted or not, the RAISE Act has already been successful by nurturing the racial grievances of a segment of our population.