Since the late nineteenth century, federal and state rules governing immigration and naturalization have placed persons of Asian ancestry outside the boundaries of formal membership. A review of leading cases in American constitutional law regarding Asians would suggest that initially, Asian immigrants tended to evade exclusionary laws through deliberate misrepresentations of their identities or through extralegal means. Eventually, many of these immigrants and their descendants came to accept prevailing legal norms governing their citizenship in the United States. In many cases, this involved embracing notions of white supremacy. John S. W. Park argues that American rules governing citizenship and belonging remain fundamentally unjust, even though they suggest the triumph of a "civil rights" vision, where all citizens share the same basic rights. By continuing to privilege members over non-members in ways that are politically popular, these rules mask injustices that violate principles of fairness. Importantly, Elusive Citizenship also suggests that politically and socially, full membership in American society remains closely linked with participation in exclusionary practices that isolate racial minorities in America.
Focusing primarily on the exclusion of the Chinese, Lucy Salyer analyzes the popular and legal debates surrounding immigration law and its enforcement during the height of nativist sentiment in the early twentieth century. She argues that the struggles between Chinese immigrants, U.S. government officials, and the lower federal courts that took place around the turn of the century established fundamental principles that continue to dominate immigration law today and make it unique among branches of American law. By establishing the centrality of the Chinese to immigration policy, Salyer also integrates the history of Asian immigrants on the West Coast with that of European immigrants in the East.
In the spring of 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur. This act provided an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.
In the 1850s, Chinese workers migrated to the United States, first to work in the gold mines, but also to take agricultural jobs, and factory work, especially in the garment industry. Chinese immigrants were particularly instrumental in building railroads in the American west, and as Chinese laborers grew successful in the United States, a number of them became entrepreneurs in their own right. As the numbers of Chinese laborers increased, so did the strength of anti-Chinese sentiment among other workers in the American economy. This finally resulted in legislation that aimed to limit future immigration of Chinese workers to the United States, and threatened to sour diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s, when federal legislation that excluded further Chinese immigration created demands for new immigrant labor. Railroads in particular recruited Issei –or first generation immigrants--from Hawaii and Japan. Thousands of Japanese workers helped construct the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Oregon Short Line and other railroads in the Columbia River Basin. By 1907, the Japanese comprised about 40 percent of Oregon’s total railroad labor force. These workers commanded higher wages from railroad companies as the sugar beet industry began competing for their labor.
Japanese immigrants began their journey to the United States in search of peace and prosperity, leaving an unstable homeland for a life of hard work and the chance to provide a better future for their children. However, before the first generation of immigrants could enjoy the fruits of their labor, they had to overcome hostile neighbors, harsh working conditions, and repeated legislative attacks on their very presence in the country. Acceptance came only after the immigrants and their children were forced to endure one of the 20th century's worst crimes against civil liberties, and from that crucible fought to claim their place in the life of the nation.