They come from "a degraded and inferior race," one Senator said. Others called them "rats, beasts, and swine." They were accused of bringing drug use, prostitution, and gang activity into the United States. They caused "moral and racial pollution." They drove down wages and took jobs of those already here. As a congressman shouted, "The gate ... must be closed."
And it was. Those are arguments made during congressional debate on the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a shameful episode discussed in Professor Erika Lee's new book, The Making of Asian America. While that act barred immigration for the most part, it allowed exceptions for students, teachers, travelers, merchants and diplomats. Prof. Lee calculates that of the 300,000 Chinese admitted under those and family-related exceptions during 1882-1943, 90-95% came on false papers, so-called "paper sons." As she says, "The first to be restricted, Chinese became the first 'illegal immigrants.'"
When the nativist trumpet blows today, we should remember the sour notes it blew before.