Is SB 1070 a Modern “Chinese Exclusion Law”?

A cartoon from a nineteenth century newspaper, detailing contemporary anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment

Last month, Arizona passed an insidious piece of legislation known as SB 1070 — a law that makes being an illegal immigrant a state crime and empowers state and city police officers to conduct immigration checks. While supporters of the law claim that it only enforces federal immigration guidelines, the fact of the matter is that SB 1070 is little more than a modern-day Chinese Exclusion Law.

How ironic is it, than, that SB 1070 was passed within days of the start of Asian American Heritage Month?

In 1858, the Chinese Exclusion Law (not to be confused with the later federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) was part of a series of laws passed by California city and state governments that attempted to address the so-called “problem” of Chinese immigrants by making life virtually impossible for a Chinese immigrant. Coupled with laws that taxed foreign miners, prevented the ringing of gongs, and banned the wearing of queues (the fashion of the day for Chinese men) in city prisons, the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1858 made it a state crime for a “Chinese” or “Mongolian” person to land in a California seaport. This is eerily similar to the text of SB 1070, which charges illegal immigrants with a misdemeanor crime of trespassing in the state of Arizona if they are found to be within Arizona state borders.

While SB 1070 (read the full text) does not specifically target Latino men and women (and, indeed, the law may affect any person of colour who appears to be of the same ethnicity as common illegal immigrants — including South Americans and Asians), it is virtually certain that SB 1070 will institutionalize racial profiling particularly against Latinos because of Arizona’s position along the U.S.-Mexico border. In essence, Arizona is attempting to affect federal immigration policies using state laws to name and target undesired immigrants, just as California attempted to do more than a century ago.

Furthermore, the Chinese Exclusion Law made it a state crime (punishable by a hefty fine or imprisonment) for any person transporting an immigrant to a California seaport. Specifically, the text of the Chinese Exclusion Law reads:

…it shall be unlawful for any man, or person, whether captain or commander, or other person, in charge of, or interested in, or employed on board of, or passenger upon, any vessel, or vessels, of any nature or description whatsoever, to knowingly allow, or permit, any Chinese or Mongolian, on and after such time, to enter any of the ports of this state, to land therein, or at any place, or places, within the borders of this state, and any person of persons violating any of the provisions of this act, shall be held and deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be subject to a fine in any sum not less than four hundred dollars, nor more than six hundred dollars, for each and every offence, or imprisonment in the county jail of the county in which the said offence was committed, for a period of not less than three months, nor more than one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Again, this passage is virtually indistinguishable from SB 1070, which applies a punishment to any person who knowingly transports an illegal immigrant into the state or anywhere within the state using any form of motor vehicle.

But what hammers the similarity home, for me, is that SB 1070, like the Chinese Exclusion Law, was not passed in isolation by their respective state governments. More than 150 years separate SB 1070 from the Chinese Exclusion Law, yet both the spirit and the practice of targeting immigrants is the same: in response to a perceived influx of immigrants of colour, a flurry of city and state laws are passed in rapid succession to make life unlivable for the targeted immigrant community. In Arizona, SB 1070 is joined by other laws coming down the pipeline that target aspects of the Latino community here in Arizona, specifically HB 2281 which was conceived of to target a publicly-funded Mexican-American high school studies program. Furthermore, state laws requiring employers to use E-Verify to determine the immigration status of prospective employers are, in spirit, the same as California’s law of 1862 — called An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California — which instituted a fine for any Chinese person who was deemed to be in competition for “White” jobs (i.e., if they were employed as anything other than a rice, tea, sugar or coffee farmer). In both cases, fears that people of colour are taking up all the jobs fuel the passing of laws that limit employment opportunities for the targeted immigrant groups.

While it is tempting to dismiss Arizona as a progressively whacko state, history teaches us that state governments are the testing grounds for federal legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Law codified an anti-Chinese sentiment that, thirty years later, was institutionalized as the more well-known Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act specifically prevented any Chinese person from being able to naturalize as an American citizen, and it is widely criticized as being the most Draconian immigration law in American history. Furthermore, it introduced a new form of legislative codespeak with which to target Chinese people — as aliens ineligible for citizenship. Following the CEA of 1882, subsequent local and state laws could be pased affecting aliens ineligible for citizenship that would target the local Chinese community without ever having to refer to race or ethnicity.

Folks who are better scholars of American immigration law than I have compared SB 1070 to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but I think the parallel is better drawn to California’s Chinese Exclusion Law of 1858. In both cases, the state oversteps its jurisdiction and attempts — and arguably succeeds — in influencing federal immigration statutes by passing Orwellian state laws that criminalize immigration into its borders. And, in both cases, we see these laws enacted during a time of fervent anti-minority anger (than against Chinese, now against Latinos) and as part of a series of state and local laws targeting specific minority groups.

The only difference here is that whereas the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1858 paved the way for the devastating Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which stayed in effect for 60 years until it was repealed in 1943 by the Magnuson Act which finally allowed people of Chinese descent to naturalize as American citizens), there is still time to interrupt the sentiments that allowed SB 1070 to pass from making it to the halls of the federal legislature.

To that end, Asian Americans cannot remain quiet about SB 1070. Our community has lived the consequences of SB 1070, and the nearly 100 years of institutionalized racism that a law like SB 1070 introduces against a minority people. This is the very month when we are supposed to remember our history — so let us do just that: we cannot allow America to forget the lessons that our history teaches.

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