Copyright (c) 2000 American Bar Foundation
Law and Social Inquiry
ARTICLE: The Paradoxes of Race, Class, Identity, and "Passing": Enforcing the Chinese Exclusion Acts, 1882-1910
25 Law & Soc. Inquiry 1
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring the entry into the United States of all Chinese laborers. This article explores the dilemmas and contradictions associated with the enforcement of this legislation, focusing on the early years during which the most glaring dilemmas were exposed. Drawing from congressional documents, as well as unpublished letters, memoranda, and circulars of immigration officials, I argue that the difficulties encountered by enforcement personnel, and the sometimes chaotic and inconsistent nature of enforcement, were related to paradoxes associated with prevailing assumptions about the nature of race, class, and identity more generally. I then document how these same paradoxes, and the techniques employed by inspectors to deal with them, ironically facilitated aspiring immigrants' resistance to the full force of the law. This case study, with its emphasis on the contradictions implicit in the law and the dialectical quality of enforcement and resistance, may contribute to our understanding of the law's fundamental indeterminacy. Finally, I suggest that the focus on the everyday dilemmas faced by frontline officials may tell us more about the ordinary life of the law and its indeterminacy than the heavily scrutinized landmark cases that constitute much of the literature.
Declaring that "the Chinese are peculiar in every respect" (Congressional Record 1882, 2608), Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barring the entry into the United States of all Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years (22 Stat. 60). Merchants, teachers, government officials, and other ...
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