Enforcing the Borders: Chinese
Exclusion along the U.S. Borders
with Canada and Mexico, 1882-1924
There is no part [of the northern border] over which a Chinaman may not pass
into our country without fear of hinderance; there are scarcely any parts of it where
he may not walk boldly across it at high noon.
-Journalist Julian Ralph, 1891
There is a broad expanse of land with an imaginary line, all passable, all being used,
all leading to the United States. The vigilance of your officers stationed along the
border is always keen, but what can a handful of people do? It is a deplorable con-
dition of affairs; we seem to be compelled to bear it; the Chinese do come in from
-U.S. Immigrant Inspector Marcus Braun, 1907
In September 1924 a Chinese male immigrant named Lim Wah entered the United
States illegally from Mexico. His goals were to find work and to join his father, a farm
laborer in northern California. Legally excluded from the United States, Lim paid an
American $200 to bring him from Mexicali, Mexico, to Calexico, California. They
waited until night and then crossed the border, ending up in San Francisco three days
later. The Chinese exclusion laws (in effect from 1882 to 1943) greatly hindered
Chinese immigration to the United States, but as Lim Wahs case demonstrates, they
did not serve as the total barriers that exclusionists had hoped for. Deteriorating
political and economic conditions in south China, the availability of jobs in the
United States, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration’s harsh enforcement procedures at
regular ports of entry such as San Francisco, and the Chinese belief that the exclusion
laws were unjust-all had the unintended consequence of turning illegal immigra-
tion via the borders into a profitable and thriving business.1
Erika Lee is assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
I would like to thank Matthew Frye Jacobson, Claudia Sadowski-Smith, Marian Smith, Patrick McNamara,
Robert G. Lee, and Grace Delgado for their encouragement and suggestions. Valuable research assistance was pro-
vided by Josephine Fowler. Joanne Meyerowitz, Richard White, the editorial staff of, and the four anonymous
reviewers for, the Journal ofAmerican History provided invaluable feedback and assistance in revisions.
Readers may contact Lee at <[email protected]>.
I The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers for a period of ten years
and barred all Chinese immigrants from naturalized citizenship. Act of May 6, 1882, 22 Stat. 58; Testimony of
54 The Journal of American History June 2002
Chinese Exclusion at the Borders with Canada and Mexico 55
It is estimated that at least 17,300 Chinese immigrants entered the United States
through the “back doors” of Canada and Mexico from 1882 to 1920.2 The number
of Chinese entries pales in comparison with that of contemporary border migrants
from Mexico, and recent scholarship has all but ignored this early history of Chinese
exclusion in the northern and southern borderlands. Nevertheless, I argue that Chi-
nese immigration to and exclusion from the United States had transnational conse-
quences that transformed the northern and southern borders into sites of contest
over illegal immigration, race, citizenship, immigration policy, and international rela-
tions. Considering Chinese immigration and exclusion from the vantage point of the
borders illustrates both the racialization of U.S. immigration policy and the impor-
tance of the Chinese diaspora in the Americas. It also demonstrates how a seemingly
national issue can sometimes be understood only in a wider, transnational context.
Race, borders, and immigration policy in the United States, Canada, and Mexico
became intertwined at the turn of the twentieth century over the issue of Chinese
immigration and exclusion.3
Prior to the 1870s, American immigration laws were aimed at recruiting, rather
than restricting, foreign immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) marks the
first time in American history that the United States barred an immigrant group
based on race and class. It excluded Chinese laborers and allowed only a few select
classes of Chinese merchants, students, teachers, travelers, and diplomats to apply for
admission to the country. The act also represents the first time that illegal immigra-
tion was defined as a criminal offense in U.S. law. The new policy also provided for
the deportation of Chinese in the country illegally. When Chinese responded to
exclusion by taking advantage of legal loopholes and cracks in the government’s
enforcement practices, they became the country’s first illegal immigrants, both in
technical, legal terms and in the context of popular and political representations.
Subsequent American immigration laws barred certain excludable aliens,. such as con-
tract laborers, convicts, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges or
Lim Wah, Dec. 2, 1932, file 12020/22130, Case Files of Investigations Resulting in Warrant Proceedings
(12020), 1912-1950, San Francisco, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85 (National
Archives, Pacific Branch, San Bruno, Calif.).
2 Since illegal immigration is difficult to quantify and detect, this estimate is speculative. It is drawn from: U.S.
Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration to the Secretary of
Commerce and Labor: For the Fiscal Year EndedJune 30, 1903 (Washington, 1903), 102; George E. Paulsen, “The
Yellow Peril at Nogales: The Ordeal of Collector William M. Hoey,” Arizona and the West, 13 (Summer 1971),
113-28; C. Luther Fry, “Illegal Entry of Orientals into the United States between 1910 and 1920,” Journal of the
American StatisticalAssociation, 23 (June 1928), 173-77.
3 On the northern and southern borders, see Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S. -Mexico Border,
1978-1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home (Austin, 1996); Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the
U.S.-Mexico Divide (Ithaca, 2000); and Bruno Ramirez, Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the
United States, 1900-1930 (Ithaca, 2001). Studies that acknowledge the role of Chinese immigration and exclusion
include George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity andAcculturation in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-
1945 (New York, 1993); and Grace Delgado, “In the Age of Exclusion: Race, Region, and Chinese Identity in the
Making of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands, 1863-1943” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles,
2000). For studies on the northern and southern borderlands that use transnational and hemispheric frameworks,
see Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-
1930 (New York, 2000), esp. 1-7; and Samuel Truett, “Neighbors by Nature: The Transformation of Land and
Life in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, 1854-1910” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1997), esp. 3. See also David
Thelen, “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History,” Journal ofAmerican His-
tory, 86 (Dec. 1999), 965-75.
56 The Journal of American History June 2002
afflicted with a contagious disease. But until both illegal immigration and border
enforcement changed in response to the 1924 immigration act, Chinese immigrants
remained the main practitioners of illegal immigration and the main immigrant tar-
gets of government scrutiny.4
Chinese border crossers highlighted the weaknesses in American immigration law
and tested the sovereignty of the United States in relation to immigration for the first
time. They forced U.S. immigration officials to deal with two interrelated problems:
stopping illegal immigration at the nation’s borders and expelling illegal immigrants
already residing in the country. The U.S. reaction signaled a new imperialist assertion
of national sovereignty in the form of border control and the imposition of American
nativism, immigration laws, and enforcement practices on both Canada and Mexico.
The ways in which this played out in the north and south, however, differed. In the
north, U.S. efforts centered on “border diplomacy” based on a historically amicable
diplomatic relationship and a shared antipathy for Chinese immigration. In contrast,
control over the southern border relied less on cooperation with Mexico and more on
border policing, a system of surveillance, patrols, apprehension, and deportation.
Both methods eventually proved successful in closing the northern and southern bor-
ders to Chinese immigration. In doing so, they laid the foundations for racialized
understandings of the “illegal immigrant problem” and of American border enforce-
ment and nation building at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Border Crossings along the Northern Border
The most numerous and earliest border crossings occurred along the Canadian bor-
der. Some of the first illegal border crossers were most likely Chinese residents of the United States who had immigrated to Canada to work for the Canadian Pacific Rail-
way Company (CPR) in the 1870s and then found themselves excluded from the
United States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Others went straight to Canada
from China with the intention of eventually entering the United States. The largely
unguarded boundary between the United States and Canada made such border
entries feasible and relatively easy to execute.5 Moreover, although Chinese immi-
grants in Canada were targets of racial hostility, Canada’s Chinese immigration laws
4 Prior to 1 875 some state laws barred the entry of foreign paupers or fugitive slaves, but the 1875 Page Law
(which forbade the entry of Asian laborers immigrating involuntarily and of prostitutes) and the 1 882 Chinese
Exclusion Act were the first federal laws to exclude groups. The latter declared that any person who secured certif-
icates of identity fraudulently or through impersonation was to be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, fined $ 1,000,
and imprisoned for up to five years. Anyone who knowingly aided and abetted the landing of “any Chinese person
not lawfully entitled to enter the United States” could be charged with a misdemeanor, fined, and imprisoned for
up to one year. The act declared that “any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be
caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came.” On pre-1875 immigration law, see Gerald
L. Neuman, “The Lost Century of American Immigration Law, 1776-1875,” Columbia Law Review, 93 (Dec.
1993), 1834-38. For the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, see Act of May 6, 1882, sec. 7, 11, 12, 22 Stat.
58. For post-1882 general immigration laws, see Act of Aug. 3, 1882, 22 Stat. 214; Immigration Act of 1891, 26
Stat. 1084; Act of Feb. 5, 1917, 39 Stat. 874; Act of May 26, 1924, 43 Stat. 153. On the 1924 change in immi-
gration law, see Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the
Immigration Act of 1924,” Journal ofAmerican History, 86 (June 1999), 67-92.
5 Resident Chinese laborers who had been in the United States at the time of the act were allowed to reenter.
David Chuenyan Lai, Chinatowns. Towns within Cities in Canada (Vancouver, 1988), 52. The earliest reports of
Chinese Exclusion at the Borders with Canada and Mexico 57
contrasted sharply with those of the United States. Instead of imitating the tice of direct exclusion of Chinese laborers, Canada’s efforts to restrict Chinese gration were indirect. In 1885 Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act imposed a dollar head tax to be collected by each ship captain at the point of departure though the United States explicitly singled out all Chinese laborers (and, for all
intents and purposes, most Chinese immigrants), Canada’s early measures allowed
entry to every Chinese provided that he paid the landing fee.6
Although the intent was to restrict Chinese immigration, Canada’s head tax system
was not a sufficient deterrent. Canada was such a convenient back door into the
United States that the tax reduced the appeal of immigration to Canada but did not
reduce the appeal of secondary immigration to the United States through Canada.
Other aspects of Canadian immigration laws seemed to facilitate Chinese illegal
immigration across the border. Chinese immigrants destined for the United States
were permitted to remain in the dominion for ninety days without paying the head
tax and could presumably cross the border at will during that time. Those who had
paid the head tax could also easily leave Canada.7 The relatively lenient Canadian
laws combined with the increasingly stringent U.S. Chinese exclusion laws led
directly to a rise in illegal border entries. After the United States passed the Scott Act
(1888), which nullified the U.S. return permits of an estimated 20,000 Chinese
laborers, 773 Chinese immigrated to Canada. In 1892, 3,264 more Chinese immi-
grated to Canada following the U.S. passage of the Geary Act, which extended the
exclusion of any additional Chinese laborers from the United States for another ten
years and required those already in the country to register with the federal govern-
ment. Witnesses at U.S. congressional hearings in 1890 and 1891 estimated that 300
to 2,000 Chinese entered illegally each year.8 Even after Canada raised its head tax to
$100 in 1900, American officials complained that the Canadian laws “practically
nullified … the effective work done by the border officers.”9
Chinese border crossers took advantage of established smuggling networks involv-
ing opium and other contraband substances along the U.S.-Canadian border. The
Vancouver-Puget Sound area was known as a “smugglers’ paradise” in the opium
trade, and Chinese and their American or Canadian guides used the same smuggling
boats and routes to make the journey to the United States. The cost of crossing the
illegal border crossings by Chinese appear in northwestern newspapers in June and July 1883. See “Chinese in
B.C.,” Port Townsend Puget SoundArgus, June 15, 1883; “More about the Chinese,” ibid., July 9, 1883.
6 Act of July 20, 1885, ch. 71, 1885 S.C. 207-12 (Can.); Patricia E. Roy, A White Man’s Province: British
Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914 (Vancouver, 1989), 59-63.
7Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual Report of the Commissioner-General ofImmigration … 1903,
8 Statistics are compiled from Canadian Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration, Report of
the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration (1902; New York, 1978), 271, as cited in Qingsong
Zhang, “Dragon in the Land of the Eagle: The Exclusion of Chinese from U.S. Citizenship” (Ph.D. diss., Univer-
sity of Virginia, 1993), 238; and U.S. Congress, House, Select Committee on Immigration and Naturalization,
Investigation of Chinese Immigration, 51 Cong., 2 sess., 1890, H. Rept. 4048, serial 2890, p. 1.
9 Act of July 18, 1900, ch. 32, 1900 S.C. 215-21 (Can.); U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual
Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor: For the Fiscal Year Ended
June 30, 1910 (Washington, 1910), 143; U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual Report of the Com-
missioner-General of Immigration to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor: For the Fiscal Year EndedJune 30, 1911
(Washington, 1911), 159.
58 The Journal of American History June 2002
border along this route ranged from $23 to $60 i der crossing through Washington State could cost up to $300.10 Other popular entry
points were along the northeastern border. The completion of the Canadian Pacific
Railway, which stretched several thousand miles from Vancouver, British Columbia,
to Montreal, Quebec, allowed immigrants to enter at a western seaport in Canada
and then travel across the country to the east, where entry into the United States was
even less guarded. Aided by Chinese already in the United States and white Ameri-
cans looking for a ready profit, the business of transporting Chinese through Buffalo,
New York, for example, became well organized and very profitable. In 1909 one
newspaper reporter found that two to four Chinese were brought into Buffalo
weekly, at a price of $200 to $600. Chinese were also commonly brought from the
Canadian border to Boston and New York City in groups ranging from two to sev-
enty-five in number. Corrupt immigration officials and judges along the border facil-
itated the illegal entry of Chinese by either masterminding the routes or admitting
Chinese immigrants into the country in exchange for money.”1
Thus, until 1923, when Canada passed a more complete exclusion bill, it
remained a convenient route into the United States for anyone willing and able to
pay the head taxes. This migration across the border prompted one Oregon magaz editor to complain that “Canada gets the money and we get the Chinamen,” and
reporters wrote about the growing “Chinese leak” coming in from Canada. As U.S.
immigration officials began to understand the magnitude of the problem facing them
along the U.S.-Canadian border, they also looked warily to the south and correctly
predicted that the Mexican boundary would “undoubtedly be the next point of
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