New immigrants bringing energy and talent from other parts of the world have historically provided America with much of its economic strength and cultural dynamism. Yet U.S. citizens, many of them recent immigrants themselves, have often been ambivalent about new arrivals. The melting pot has contained within it the seeds of its own discontent, sometimes verging on xenophobia. Manifestations of this exclusionary impulse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not vastly different from complaints about immigration today. New arrivals were said to be unassimilable, to cause unemployment, to be a drain on national fiscal resources and to influence the American character in negative and unhealthy ways. What is less well known about these periodic outbreaks of xenophobia (which typically have occured during economic downturns) is the lingering effect they have had on American legal institutions and procedures.
In her new book Laws Harsh as Tigers, Lucy Salyer has performed a valuable service -- linking the development of exclusionary policies during the late nineteenth century to the rise of powerful legal and administrative structures governing immigration in the twentieth. Specifically, Ms. Salyer shows how laws originally developed to prevent Chinese laborers from entering western coastal ports in the 1880s and 1890s became the basis for depriving aliens in general of procedural protections afforded to citizens under the Will of Rights. Ms. Salyer argues that the foundation for expanding the discretion of the Bureau of Immigration, power retained in the modern Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was firmly established as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Cases, a series of seminal Supreme Court opinions handed down between 1888 and 1905.
Ms. Salyer is a gifted writer who sustains interest in her narrative by describing the fierce battle waged by Chinese immigrants and their lawyers, with the often reluctant support the federal courts, against nativist federal legislation. Such legislation had an impressive array of supporters, including the Bureau of Immigration, the U.S. Congress and the American public. Nevertheless, while public pressure to exclude Chinese immigrants was severe, it took more than two decades for nativists to gain the upper hand.
As set forth in detail in this carefully researched volume, the Chinese proved to be tenacious and well-organized opponents. Family, district and benevolent associations...