The Chinese Must Go: The Violent Birth of American Border Control

Beth Lew-Williams, History, Princeton University

Research Grant, 2015

The American West erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 1885. Following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed, assaulted, and expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants. In The Chinese Must Go, I show how American immigration policies incited this violence and how the violence, in turn, provoked new exclusionary policies. Ultimately, I argue, Chinese expulsion and exclusion produced the concept of the “alien” in modern America.

The Chinese Must Go begins in the 1850s, before federal border control established strict divisions between citizens and aliens. Across decades of felling trees and laying tracks in the American West, Chinese workers faced escalating racial conflict and unrest. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 and made its first attempt to bar immigrants based on race and class. When this unprecedented experiment in federal border control failed to slow Chinese migration, vigilantes attempted to take the matter into their own hands. Fearing the spread of mob violence, U.S. policymakers redoubled their efforts to keep the Chinese out, overhauling U.S. immigration law and transforming diplomatic relations with China.

Anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today's immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the "heathen Chinaman."

That violence held power over U.S. politics in the nineteenth century should not come as a surprise. Transformative moments of state violence—including the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars—clearly mediated politics through force, but so too did a host of extralegal battles. Violent racial politics swelled in popularity in the Reconstruction South and in western territories, where white citizens lacked more recognized forms of political power. This racial violence terrorized local populations, shaped local politics, and at times, advanced a national agenda. In the mid-nineteenth century, this political violence, and the rhetoric that accompanied it, challenged the federal government’s reservation of Indian lands, enfranchisement of African Americans, and toleration of Chinese migration. By the century’s end, the federal government had acquiesced to violent demands for Indian dispossession, black oppression, and Chinese exclusion.

By locating the origins of the modern American alien in this violent era, I recast the significance of Chinese exclusion in U.S. history. As The Chinese Must Go makes clear, anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today’s immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the “heathen Chinaman.”

  1. Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

  2. Beth Lew-Williams, "'Chinamen' and 'Delinquent Girls': Intimacy, Exclusion, and a Search for California’s Color Line," Journal of American History (December 2017).

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