When Chinese Immigrants Came From Mexico
The U.S.-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 anti-Chinese 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-- were renewed, revised, strengthened and extended to other Asian groups in subsequent years and decades (and weren’t repealed until 1943).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 U.S. 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 Herald-Post 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 U.S. 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.
The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1917, and World War I disrupted the use of Mexico as a steppingstone for illegal entry. Migrant smuggling strongly rebounded when international steamship service was resumed. However, this mostly now involved Europeans rather than Chinese, who by this time were the main targets of a growing anti-immigrant backlash that peaked with the national-origins quotas of 1921 and 1924.
These days, Chinese immigration is no longer the main policy concern, yet some of the border enforcement and evasion dynamics are the same. Indeed, if the past is any guide, today’s determined Mexican immigrants -- like the many who preceded them -- are unlikely to be deterred by fences and border patrols. They will find alternate routes. As the Chinese migrants of a century ago showed, where there’s a will, there’s often a clandestine way.
(Peter Andreas is a professor of political science and the interim director of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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