When Chi­nese im­mi­grants came from Mex­ico

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Peter Andreas

THE US-Mex­ico bor­der has long been a con­duit for un­doc­u­mented work­ers. Less ap­pre­ci­ated is that the first mi­grants weren't Mex­i­can; they were Chi­nese. Start­ing in the 1850s, tens of thou­sands of Chi­nese la­bor­ers (many of whom left in vi­o­la­tion of their coun­try's em­i­gra­tion laws) were ini­tially sought af­ter in the Amer­i­can West as a source of cheap la­bor, es­pe­cially to build the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road. They were never wel­comed, how­ever, and couldn't be­come ci­ti­zens. When the de­mand for la­bor dried up, an an­tiChi­nese back­lash quickly fol­lowed.

As po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to "do some­thing" about the "yel­low peril" in­ten­si­fied, Congress first passed the Page Act of 1875 (with en­force­ment mostly aimed at keep­ing out Chi­nese pros­ti­tutes), fol­lowed by the far more sweep­ing Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882. Th­ese laws -- the fed­eral government's first at­tempts to keep out "un­de­sir­ables" -- were re­newed, re­vised, strength­ened and ex­tended to other Asian groups in sub­se­quent years and decades (and weren't re­pealed un­til 1943).

As front-door en­try through San Fran­cisco and other U.S. sea­ports be­came more dif­fi­cult in the late 19th cen­tury, in­creas­ing num­bers of Chi­nese im­mi­grants turned to the back en­trance: the vast and min­i­mally po­liced north­ern and south­ern U.S. land bor­ders. In the late 1880s and '90s, Canada was a fa­vored base for smug­gling im­mi­grants into the US But as Cana­di­ans be­gan co­op­er­at­ing with Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties, Chi­nese mi­grants and their smug­glers in­creas­ingly turned to Mex­ico. That coun­try was far less in­clined to co­op­er­ate with the U.S. be­cause of the still-fes­ter­ing wounds of the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War about half a cen­tury ear­lier. State De­part­ment ef­forts to ne­go­ti­ate agree­ments with the government of Pres­i­dent Por­firio Diaz to curb Chi­nese en­tries went nowhere. As was the case with Canada, new steamship, rail­way and road net­works aided mi­grant smug­gling through Mex­ico. But un­like in Canada, Mex­i­can trans­port com­pa­nies showed lit­tle will­ing­ness to co­op­er­ate with the U.S.

The Treaty of Amity and Com­merce signed by China and Mex­ico in 1899, and the es­tab­lish­ment of di­rect steamship travel be­tween Hong Kong and Mex­ico in 1902, opened the door for a surge in Chi­nese mi­gra­tion. And this, in turn, pro­vided a step­ping­stone for clan­des­tine mi­gra­tion to the U.S. In 1900, there were just a few thou­sand Chi­nese in Mex­ico; less than a decade later, al­most 60,000 Chi­nese mi­grants had de­parted for Mex­ico. Some stayed, but the U.S. was a far more at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion. In 1907, a U.S. government in­ves­ti­ga­tor ob­served that as many as 50 Chi­nese ar­rived daily by train in the bor­der town of Juarez, yet the Chi­nese com­mu­nity in the town never grew. Fore­shad­ow­ing fu­ture de­bates, a Jan­uary 1904 ed­i­to­rial in the El Paso Her­aldPost warned that "if this Chi­nese im­mi­gra­tion to Mex­ico con­tin­ues it will be nec­es­sary to run a barb wire fence along our side of the Rio Grande."

A 1906 law-en­force­ment report on Chi­nese smug­gling noted that, "All through north­ern Mex­ico, along the lines of the rail­road, are lo­cated so-called board­ing houses and restau­rants, which are the ren­dezvous of the Chi­nese and their smug­glers, and the small towns and vil­lages through­out this sec­tion are filled with Chi­nese coolies, whose only oc­cu­pa­tion seems to be ly­ing in wait un­til ar­range­ment can be per­fected for car­ry­ing them across the bor­der."

As US au­thor­i­ties tight­ened en­force­ment at ur­ban en­try points along the Mex­ico-Cal­i­for­nia bor­der, smug­glers shifted to more re­mote ar­eas fur­ther east in Ari­zona, New Mex­ico and Texas. They also tried to buy off, rather than by­pass, U.S. au­thor­i­ties as they moved their hu­man cargo across the line. This was the case in No­gales, Ari­zona, where bor­der in­spec­tors, in­clud­ing the col­lec­tor of cus­toms, re­port­edly charged smug­glers be­tween $50 and $200 a head. Th­ese of­fi­cials were ar­rested by spe­cial agents of the Trea­sury De­part­ment and Se­cret Ser­vice op­er­a­tives in Au­gust 1901. The Washington Post re­ported that, "with two or three ex­cep­tions, the whole cus­toms and im­mi­gra­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion at No­gales are in­volved" in the smug­gling scheme. Chi­nese weren't the only ones coming in through the back door. They were sim­ply at the top of a grow­ing list of "un­de­sir­ables," in­clud­ing Le­banese, Greeks, Ital­ians, Slavs from the Balkans and Jews. Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials turned away mem­bers of th­ese groups in dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers, and they found Mex­ico to be a con­ve­nient back-door alternative.

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