Coming to America

There was a quiet and intimate setting in Margaret Morrison Hall’s room 103 on Thursday. The weather may have been inclement, but not even a mechanical failure on Erika Lee’s plane, which managed to delay her arrival by a few hours, was going to ruin the evening.

Erika Lee, an associate professor in U.S. history at the University of Minnesota, received her Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley. Lee told how her primary research and teaching interests are in Asian American studies, immigration, comparative race and ethnicity, and 20th-century American history. She is currently researching Asian immigration and exclusion in the Americas during the late 1880s through the 1940s.

The third of a series sponsored by H&SS, Lee’s presentation, “Asian Migration and National Identities in North America, 1880s–1940s,” stayed true to her recent research. For over an hour, she held her ground on the difficulties of the Asian migration into the United States, Mexico, and Canada during the turn of the century.

Separated into three distinct “episodes,” the great Asian immigration into other countries was important to North America. The first episode, in the United States around the 1870s, marked a time of fear and misunderstanding. Lee’s research notes America’s xenophobic mentality when it was popular to throw around the phrase “the Chinese are upon us” in the media. With the Exclusion Act following in six short years, America closed off to the Chinese, and Teddy Roosevelt even nicknamed the Pacific Fleet “the Great White Fleet.” John F. Kennedy would later remember this time in his 1960 book, fittingly titled A Nation of Immigrants.

The second episode focused on Canada, facing the aftereffects of America’s gatekeeping: an influx of turned-away immigrants. The public felt that the positive image of Canada was being lost in “non-white” immigrants — that some form of homogeneity in the nation was being thrown off-balance.

With the 1870s depression, the Chinese only served as a scapegoat, and a head tax was enforced. When the numbers refused to drop, the head tax rose from fifty, to a hundred, to five hundred dollars. Still, for every two white immigrants, there were three Chinese still willing to bear the burden of the head tax and live in Canada.

The final episode was in Mexico, in which the emphasis shifted from a “Whites versus Asian Mongols” mentality to a “Western versus Eastern” one. When the Chinese immigrated and took over the labor force Mexico wanted filled by Europeans, Mexico’s government regulated the influx of the Chinese, harassing and pressuring them much as Canada did with its head tax.

By 1931, practically all of northern Mexico was cleared of Chinese immigrants. Lee said these events were far from coincidental: all 3 episodes linked by xenophobia.

This is a huge theme for scholars of migration, as it shows parallel and cooperative effort among the nations to form policies that supposedly protected their national security and reduced socioeconomic problems. These policies, the effects of which are now felt by other minorities, were present since the great influx of Chinese immigrants.

Lee said the policies formed the same mentality in such different conditions. While the Chinese served as lackeys in Northern America, they served as the middle class of Mexico. The question session that followed also addressed hierarchical xenophobia: the dominant “white rhetoric” kept Mexico out of the picture when the United States and Canada worked together on creating anti-immigrant policies.

If you missed this event and are interested in this topic, you can read Lee’s book, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Lee explains how the Chinese exclusion laws transformed the United States into a “gatekeeping” nation. At the heart of the book is the question of whether the United States is a nation of immigrants or a “gatekeeping” nation, one that is still hotly debated.