The Age of Exclusion: 1880-1924
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century experienced an influx of non-European immigrants traveling to the United States. Local communities of predominantly white Americans maintained a racial hierarchy in order to eliminate economic competition found in the exploitable immigrant populations. They responded the increase in immigration by forming organizations and political parties that would work to limit the immigrant access to economic and political opportunities believed to be available exclusively to whites. Each wave of Asian immigration replaced the last as a visible threat to an increasingly hostile nativist population. The Chinese population became one of the first non-white populations targeted for exclusion. The history of Chinese and Japanese immigration and its ultimate exclusion through legal restrictions contributed to the Filipino’s experience on the mainland.
Chinese immigrants were the largest non-white immigrant population in the late nineteenth century. California senator, John F. Miller, made history in 1882 by introducing the first immigration policy to exclude a population based on their race. He, along with other senators, compared Chinese immigrants to “‘rats,’ ‘beasts,’ and ‘swine.’” He proclaimed, “[A] vote for Chinese exclusion was thus a vote for both American labor and the ‘public good’ of the country.’” Multiple legislative exclusion bills emerged on the state and federal levels and systematically eliminated Chinese access to immigration quotas and the ability to naturalize as a United States citizen.
This process of immigration restriction in the United States created a method to exclude undesirable populations from entering the country. In reality, Chinese immigration represented only 4.3 percent of the total number of immigrants in the 1870s. The perceived threat of their existence was founded on the moral decay of the United States through racialized health risks Chinese immigrants possessed. Historian Erika Lee argues, “Chinese female prostitutes caused ‘moral and racial pollution’ through their inter-racial liaisons, while Chinese men lured pure and innocent white women into their dens of vice and depravity." White community leaders and politicians employed this belief to exclude the Chinese immigrant population from American citizenship and whiteness. Posed as a threat to American labor by working for lower wages at jobs seen as “women’s work,” the Chinese immigrant population became victims of social exclusion and violence prior to the national policy of prohibiting their immigration.
The depletion of the Chinese labor force created new opportunities for Japanese immigrants. The Japanese experience was informed through their possession of land and their readiness to respond to unfair labor conditions. They shifted from agricultural laborers to entrepreneurs and owned over 3,000 businesses. These successes were modest but, “made their numbers seem so much more ominous to white Americans, and their urban concentrations, where Chinese were also conspicuous, began to generate apprehensions.” President Theodore Roosevelt responded to increased local hostility toward Japanese immigrants by signing a diplomatic agreement with Japan. The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908 barred Japanese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The Gentleman’s Agreement shows Japanese entrance into the national narrative of Asian exclusion from the United States.
Japanese immigration would not effectively be halted until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. The 1924 immigration act became the national expression of anti-Asian resentment in the United States. It reduced the total number of immigrants to 165,000 and established quotas for sending nations. These quotas gave specific European nations a higher percentage of the admittance. Historian Erika Lee concludes, “[T]he act closed the door on any further Asian immigration by denying admission to all aliens who were ‘ineligible for citizenship’(i.e. those to whom naturalization was denied).”Filipino immigrants were absent from these racial designations because of their legal status as nationals. Nativist sentiment shifted toward this new Asian immigrant population and would result in their independence by way of exclusion and not recognition as fit for self-government.