Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

5.3: Immigration and Exclusion

  • Page ID
    • Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Immigration and Exclusion: Labor

    Since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, there have been laws enacted that correspond with anti-Asian sentiments. In the early 1900s, there were anti-Japanese sentiments and the fear of Japanese immigrants (Lee, 2015). This led to the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement Act that restricted Japanese laborers from immigrating. In 1907, South Asian immigrants had to flee Bellingham, Washington when they were attacked without much warning (Lee, 2015). Ultimately the Asiatic Barred Zone in 1917 restricted Indians and others from immigrating. In the 1930s, Filipinx farmworkers were attacked in what was called the Watsonville Riots. Like some of the other Asian laborers, Filipinxs were seen as competition with white workers. Further, these white workers and community members didn’t like the way that Filipinx men had relationships with white women. Anti-miscegenation laws strictly prohibited interracial marriage and sexual relations between whites and non-whites. California didn’t overturn this law until 1948 and the last anti-miscegenation law to be struck down was through the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967. While many of the Asian laborers were seen as competition, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were specifically feared based on the idea that China and Japan, and by extension Chinese and Japanese immigrants, were taking over the U.S. This is seen as “yellow peril.” Yellow peril emphasizes the perceived foreignness and fear of invasion, getting rid of “American morals.”

    Chinese Exclusion Laws

    The Page Act of 1875 is the first law created to exclude people on the basis of race, where Chinese women were forbidden from immigrating to the United States if they were deemed prostitutes. In practice, this was applied to all Chinese women and by extension all Asian women, whether they were sex workers or not. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is a part of the group of first exclusionary acts on the basis of race, but this time banning all Chinese laborers due to the fears that they were taking over the country, and that they were taking jobs away from whites. Lee (2002) calls the 1882 act to be the first to function as a gatekeeper. Lee analyzes historical documents to connect how the 1882 Act paved the way for larger systemic gatekeeping through immigration. She claims this act served as "Precursors to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, United States passports, 'green cards,' illegal immigration and deportation policies can all be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act" (Lee, 2002, p. 37).

    Since the exclusion acts against Chinese nationals, each major Asian immigrant group experienced exclusion, one after the other. At first, each group was brought in to fill the labor gaps from the group before. For example, after Chinese laborers were excluded, Japanese laborers were relied on more. In 1907, Japanese laborers were then also excluded because people feared Japanese people were taking over and also because Japanese laborers were seen as extreme competition to white workers.

    In the late 1880s/early 1900s, immigrants from Asia were seen as a threat through the idea of Yellow Peril specifically targeting Chinese or Japanese laborers and countries.

    1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement and Picture Brides

    The 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement closed the door to Japanese laborers from entering the United States but negotiations still enabled Japanese women to “emigrate as family members” (Wilson and Hosokawa in Takaki, 2008, p. 234). However, Japanese women didn’t always meet their husbands before immigration and sometimes took part as “picture brides.” As picture brides, families arranged single Japanese women with the help of go-betweens to find Japanese men in the United States to marry (p. 234). Thus, Japanese women would send pictures of themselves and they would have an arranged marriage. This became a more common way for Japanese women to immigrate during this time, as 20,000 Japanese “picture brides” between 1908 and 1920 emigrated to Hawai’i and to the U.S. (Lee, 2015).

    Halting and Starting Immigration

    The Asiatic Barred Zone halted immigration of Indians in the 1920s. The Immigration Act of 1924 then completely terminated immigration from all of Asia. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that Indians began immigrating again and many “had high human capital and worked as doctors and engineers” (Basu, 2017, p. 5). Later, "the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act 1975 gave Vietnamese war refugees special status and Congress granted them relocation aid" (Basu, 2017, p. 5).

    Immigrants arriving on Angel Island and women in the front are wearing kimonos
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Photograph of immigrants arriving at Immigration Station on Angel Island (ca. 1931)." (Public Domain; mákvirágok via Flickr)

    1965 Immigration Act

    The 1965 Immigration Act went into effect in 1969 (Lobo and Salvo, 739, 1998). The law created immigration preference categories for family reunification and professional skills, allotted “170,000 immigrant visas” for the “Eastern Hemisphere” which was “Asia, Europe, Africa, and Oceania” and allowed only 20,000 visas per country (Lobo and Salvo, 1998, p. 742). Lobo and Salvo (1998) state that “besides physicians, a large number of Asian nurses, dentists, and pharmacists, scientists, and engineers entered during this period” (Lobo and Salvo, 1998, pp. 740 and 741).

    Sidebar: A Closer look at the 1965 Immigration Act

    From the period of 1972-1977, Asian immigration totaled an average of 136,827 yearly while the total of all immigrants yearly average was about 405,000 (Lobo and Salvo, 1998, p. 743).

    For the types of visas, China’s highest percent of immigration visas were allocated through employment preferences for the last period of 1992-1994 with about 53% (p. 743). India had their highest percent immigration visas in family during 1978-1991 with about 60% and highest for employment in 1972-1977 with 57%. The Philippines had their highest percentage of visas allocated from the immediate relatives category. Finally, Vietnam in 1972-1977 had the highest percent yearly allocations in the refugee category.

    The 1965 Immigration Act ended the Immigration Act of 1924 “quota” based system that severely restricted immigration and therefore redirected immigration to include more Asian and other people of color immigrants unlike before (Basu, 2017, p.1). Basu writes, “Preference categories for admissions were created based on family ties, critical skills, diversity, and refugee status” (Basu, 2017, p.5). The initial Asian immigrants who came following this act “were employed in high-skill, high-wage occupations” (Basu, 2017, p. 2).

    Chinese people, Indians, and Filipinx people are the largest Asian groups in the U.S.


    After slavery was abolished in the U.S., plantation owners needed workers to work on the land since Blacks were no longer forced to work for them. Latin America became a hotspot for indentured labor from Asia, and in particular Chinese and Indian workers. These indentured laborers who worked under contract were called Coolies. Women workers from India came later but only if they were deemed “moral” such as being “widowed” or “married” because “single women” were said to cause strife between male workers who would compete to have sex with them (Lee, 2015, p.4). Lee writes, “The first group of 396 Asian indentured laborers arrived in May of 1838… After reports of abuse of workers surfaced, the experiment ended the next year, but the system resumed in 1844, and from 1838 to 1917, 429,623 South Asians and 17,904 Chinese went to the British West Indies as indentured laborers” (2015, p. 3 ebook). Some of the places the laborers went included: British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Peru, Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and more.

    Coolies was a term used in Latin America and especially in the United States to depict workers who were seen as job-stealing competition (Lee, 2015, p.1). Coolie labor was related to the slavery system as they were often mistreated like slaves (Lee, 2015, p.5) and sometimes held against their will. Some laborers under the coolie system were forcibly sent to work in Latin America and even tricked into doing so (Lee, 2015, pp.4-5). Lee documents instances where sometimes they were forced into labor even years after their contract ended (Lee, 2015, p.5).

    Hawaiʻi Plantation Labor

    Hawai'i became a popular place for Asian immigrants who wanted to come to the United States. They worked on largely sugar plantations for low wages, they fought for better conditions in their work and home, they were pitted against one another in their struggle against the white plantation leadership. Besides Japanese laborers, there were others that were “Hawaiians, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Chinese… Portuguese, and Koreans” with an “overseer” that was usually “white” (Takaki, 2008, p. 240). Women laborers made less than men despite doing the same work (Lillian Ota Takaki in Takaki, 2008, p. 240). Lillian Takaki writes, “ ‘Female field hands, for example, received an average wage of only fifty-five cents per day in 1915, compared to the seventy-eight cents for male field hands’.” (Takaki in Takaki, 2008, p. 240). Laborers complained that working in the fields was very difficult and they “worked like machines” and were “watched constantly” (Takaki, 2008, p. 240).

    Takaki states that Japanese laborers were stereotyped as not causing trouble because they are “accommodating” and didn’t make a lot of noise but in reality they constantly fought back about the conditions they faced at work especially through striking (Takaki, 2008, p. 242). What Japanese and other workers realized was that when members of their group fought for better working conditions, others would be used and pitted against them through a “divide-and-control” or divide-and-conquer technique. They would amplify and pit needs and advantages against the needs and disadvantages of others and therefore attempt to highlight differences through preferences in order to squash any semblance of commonalities that people would recognize across groups. Many times groups were able to see how they were being used against one another and came together to fight for better working conditions.

    From the beginning, the workers camps were cramped. Later as laborers had families, “… [planters] wanted to ‘stimulate’ a ‘home feeling’ in order to make their workers happier and more productive” (Takaki, 2008, p.247). For some of the various ethnic groups including Japanese laborers, there were religious institutions, language schools, and sometimes for many the sharing of ethnic foods (p. 248). Pidgin was created and grew into popularity, with Pidgin being "a simple English that incorporated Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese phrases as well as their rhythms and intonations" (p. 249). Pidgin was spoken on the plantation amongst the workers who created this common dialect to speak with one another. Tagalog and Ilocano were also said to have influenced Pidgin but the earlier mentioned languages were said to have the biggest influence.

    Sidebar: Philip Vera Cruz

    mural of Philip Vera Cruz on the top, wearing glasses and facing forward along with Itliong, Chavez, and strikers
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A mural in Historic Filipinotown, L.A with Philip Vera Cruz on the top left. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Photo by Kenny Chang via Flickr)

    Philip Vera Cruz became the second vice-president of the United Farm Workers union (UFW) until his resignation in 1977. He was the highest-ranking Filipinx officer in the UFW. Before helping to form the UFW and leading the grape strike, Vera Cruz was an officer in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO which combined with the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, to form the UFW (Scharlin and Villanueva 2000, 31). For Vera Cruz, participating in the UFW changed his life, stating that joining the union gave him “the opportunity to participate in the political struggles of this country…as a worker struggling along with my fellow workers for our constitutional rights” (p. 33).

    Vera Cruz was a farm laborer, and when he joined the AWOC, he also studied the history of labor movements. He understood the value in multiethnic strikes, while a majority-white led Teamsters union tried to convince Filipinx workers from merging with Mexican workers. Vera Cruz, along with others in the AWOC, including Larry Itliong, understood that “we must unite all the races so we’ll have one strong union that represents all workers. We explained how in the past you could see that because the workers were divided they were weak” (Scharlin and Villanueva, 2000, p. 46), also pointing out that growers would play one group off another in order to maximize their profits. Vera Cruz noted that Itliong had reservations about merging with Mexican workers, fearing that Filipinx workers would be pushed out, but ultimately he felt that his primary goal was to improve the conditions for all farm workers. On August 1966, a year into the grape strike, the AWOC and NFWA merged and turned into one union: the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW), vastly supported by both Filipinx and Mexican farm workers. Vera Cruz also pointed out the role that Teamsters played to “fan the flames” between whatever disputes existed between Filipinx and Mexican farm workers, eager to bring Filipinx members over to their union (p. 49). See also Chapter 11, section 11.5 on the agricultural labor movement in California.

    From Colonization to Nursing

    Catherine Ceniza Choy (2019), writes that “U.S. colonization” greatly contributed to the high amount of Filipinx nurses in the United States due to “Americanized professional nurse training,” English being one of the main languages for exams, and the presence of other types of medical nursing courses to students. Choy further writes, “According to the 2016 Survey of California Registered Nurses, Filipinos make up the second largest group of the state’s active RN workforce, nearly 18 percent. Among younger nurses, they’re even more predominant, with Filipino nurses representing nearly a quarter of nurses between ages 35 to 44 years and more than one-fifth of RNs 45 to 54 years old” (2019). However, “from Covid, Filipino nurses are just 4 percent of the nursing workforce in the United States, but constitute nearly one-third of nursing deaths due to Covid-19, according to a research study conducted by National Nurses United last fall” (Ocampo, 2021).

    Choy (2019) writes,

    Filipino immigrant nurses also bring experience with Philippine traditional therapies such as hilot, faith healing, and the use of medicinal plants. Hilot is a traditional form of massage therapy or chiropractic manipulation that relieves aches and pains. This knowledge of Philippine healing modalities is important not solely because the use of alternative therapies in the U.S. has become more mainstream, but also because a growing number of Americans are of Filipino heritage. Between 1980 and 2016, the Filipino immigrant population in the United States nearly quadrupled. California is home to the largest Filipino-American population in the nation with over 1.6 million of Filipino descent (Choy, 2019).

    Race and Asian American Space

    Little Manila

    Filipina American historian, the late Dawn Mabalon (2013) discusses the Filipinx American movement in Stockton, CA from 1967 to 1972 in her text Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of a Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. She writes, “Galvanized by anger over displacements of urban renewal and freeway construction, these seemingly disparate groups drew on their community development to forge a formidable alliance that challenged the white and Filipina/o power structure in Stockton, as well as the notion that Filipinas/os should remain second-class citizens” (p. 300).

    Mabalon (2013) recognized that contrary to popular belief about Filipinas/xs/os, a lot of conflict that made organizing the community difficult wasn’t due to regionalism (i.e. differences between being from Luzon, Visayas, or Mindanao) but instead language differences, whether Tagalog, Visayan languages, Ilocano, and others (p. 103). Mabalon (2013) recalls the discrimination and segregation that Filipinxs faced.

    As mentioned earlier, some of the impetus for fighting was due to the idea that Filipinx Americans were considered “second-class citizens.” The following memory from a Stockton resident during that time shows the discrimination and treatment of Filipinas/xs/os in regards to basic needs. This discrimination dehumanized them and is also reminiscent of Civil Rights Struggles in the 1960's. Mabalon (2013) writes,

    The only place Filipinas/os were allowed to live and congregate in downtown was south of Main Street, in the Oriental Quarter. Most institutions, businesses, and gathering places outside of the campo and the streets of the West End were strictly forbidden to Filipinas/os. Many hotels in the downtown West End refused to rent rooms to them. Immigrants recalled seeing the signs that warned Filipinas/os not to let the sun set on them in the city. "I personally saw signs on some hotel stairways on El Dorado Street, openly discriminating against Filipinos saying ‘Positively No Filipinos allowed’ or ‘No Filipinos or dogs allowed,’ " remembered by Anita Bautista, a second-generation Pinay (p. 113).


    a five-tiered concrete tower with circular tiers and a point
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Peace Pagoda in Japantown, San Francisco. (CC BY 4.0; Photo by Jordan Burkart)

    What was once a comfortable Japantown in San Francisco became a place that completely changed when Japanese Americans were forced to leave West coast cities during World War II due to Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 signed two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When Japanese American residents of Japantown in San Francisco came back to their homes after living in the camps, they sometimes came to find new ownership and establishments, as well as sometimes losing their homes. Upon returning, they found that a lot of the area had been targeted for redevelopment. Some residents were able to come back and those who were able have been fighting against redevelopment ever since, a common occurrence amongst communities of color in urban spaces.

    To “Save Japantown,” they formed a committee that included “designated city planners, local community, merchants, homeowners’ associations, and residents.” (Takashi, 2014, p. 6). Efforts to “Save Japantown” have faced the difficult challenge of balancing various interests and prioritizing cultural preservation or economic revitalization. One issue included whose interest did the initiative serve? For example, Japanese Americans may be fighting to preserve Japanese culture but others argue that Japanese Americans used to be against Japanese (as in Japan) investments and are now fighting against outside investments (Takashi, 2014, p.10). Another issue was what exactly did preservation look like (p. 8)? As with other ethnic neighborhoods, they fought gentrification, fighting against outsiders redeveloping the area and taking away their ethnic ties and local establishment. Further, Takashi writes,

    Interviewee C : Business owner and community leader (Sansei male):

    I think most of the property owners are Nisei and … don’t always like governmental intervention. They are like “let me do whatever I want on my property” … “let me control my own destiny” … “I don’t want government to tell me what to do” … it’s typical Nisei. I’m sure all the experience they’ve had through the Depression, the War and discrimination and redevelopment … Everything has affected their decisions (2014, p. 9).

    As expressed in this quotation, there is a lot of history impacting the way that the different groups involved are navigating how to “Save Japantown” including within the Japanese and Japanese American community. One white community planner called the presence and impact of history “an open wound” within the community and efforts to save the community (Takashi, 2014, p. 9).


    Green roof over a gate in front of a street. Golden dragons on top.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): "Dragon Gate" in San Francisco. (CC BY 4.0; Photo by Jordan Burkart)

    Shah (2001) writes,

    nineteenth-century San Francisco health officials and politicians conceived of Chinatown as the preeminent site of urban sickness, vice, crime, poverty, and depravity; furthermore, “health authorities readily conflated the physical condition of Chinatown with the characteristics of Chinese people. They depicted Chinese immigrants as a filthy and diseased “race” who incubated such incurable afflictions as smallpox, syphilis, and bubonic plague and infected white Americans” (San Francisco Board of Health, 1876-1881 in Shah, 2001, pp. 1-2).

    These attributes contributed to the idea of who is an “acceptable” kind of immigrant, who is healthy and desirable.

    Shah (2001) writes that during the 19th century, “Chinese Americans found it impossible to move outside the boundaries of Chinatown. Attempts to move encountered resistance from white real estate brokers, who refused to show Chinese Americans houses in exclusively white neighborhoods, and from white landlords, who turned down Chinese tenants (p. 230). Shah found various sources that demonstrate this that includes a Survey of Race Relations collection and interviews as a part of Combined Asian American Resources Oral History Project. Because of this, Chinese Americans lived in segregated Chinatowns before being able to slowly find housing in white neighborhoods in the twentieth century when they proved they could be trusted to be clean, “adapted to American living styles and standards in furnishings and decor and by Chinese families who conformed to idealized nuclear-family social dynamics” (p. 230). Such heteronormativity contrasted with the historically bachelor societies in Chinatowns and other ethnic neighborhoods that were said to harbor disease and promote uncleanliness amongst same-sex housing (p. 230).

    In their quest for humanization, middle-class Chinese Americans fought laws and went to court to challenge their treatment, and gained media visibility and sympathy from many. Shah (2013) remarks that this helped shift perceptions of Chinese Americans, but sometimes at the cost of others. For example, fighting for middle-class Chinese Americans and making the claim that they are upright and moral, clean citizens and that their wealth and status proves it, often came at the detriment of those who lived in bachelor societies (p. 230). Many of these bachelor societies existed because of the limited immigration allowable for Asian women and thus the settling and homemaking often done by longer-term immigrants.

    Undocumented Asian Americans

    Tracy Buenavista (2018) states, "more than one million are undocumented Asian immigrants, or 12 percent of the total undocumented population" out of a total of about 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. (p. 79). Buenavista argues that because Asian American undocumented students are more so seen as "silent", she claims it "prevent[s] them from seeking support networks and resources among the larger undocumented immigrant community" and that even though they refrain from seeking support, they still achieve "academic mobility like college access" (p. 80).

    Enriquez (2019) compares some differences between Latinx undocumented students and Asian undocumented students. One Asian undocumented immigrant recognized how they were seen differently from Mexican undocumented immigrants and how it enables them more access. “Edith Oh, a Korean [undocumented immigrant] student, noted, ‘They would probably think you’re legal here [Asians] and you followed all the laws…I guess just [because] Asians are obedient. Since they were little they listen to their parents. And they follow the laws [and] regulations' ” (p. 265). Enriquez specifically states how such assumptions about Asian undocumented immigrants helped keep them safe as people didn’t assume they were undocumented and so people were less likely to question them about lacking documentation (p. 265). There were markers that indicate a lack of foreignness to people or a status attributed to something else. “Anna Kwon, who arrived at the age of ten, explained, ‘They assume that I’m Korean American since I speak [English] fluently. So it’s like, they don’t assume that I’m undocumented’ ” (p. 266). However, she adds that if not documented, “they would think I’m an international student” (p. 266).

    This page titled 5.3: Immigration and Exclusion is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .