Pacific Postcards

Ethan Newman Essay 3


Ethan Newman


GESM 130

Immigration Act of 1924

Throughout American history, racial ideas held by Americans have developed and changed rapidly. From Americans kicking Native Americans off from their homeland to Americans enslaving African Americans, there are numerous examples of white Americans holding prejudices against minority groups. Primary sources are a perfect way to reveal these racial ideological beliefs. Images are great at visualizing a period, where viewers can infer what is happening. In addition to images, historical texts are substantial at gathering information because it directly tells us the details. However, there are limitations to using historical texts because there could be a lack of context to explain the whole story. On the topic of the Pacific Ocean, The Immigration Act of 1924 was a product of multiple economic events and anti-Asian ideology from the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though the Immigration Act of 1924 seemed neutral in its writing and lacks an explanation for why Asians were banned from America, Carson’s argument of Americans fearing economic competition from Chinese workers and Lee’s argument of Americans holding anti-Asian ideology both strongly reveal the true reason why the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed. 

In the 19th century, immigration was lightly enforced which led to the American population growth in racial and cultural diversity. Americans eventually had popular support for stricter immigration quotas which led to the passing of the Immigration act of 1924. One main section of the Immigration Act is that it set a quota for only 165,000 immigrants outside of the western hemisphere. In addition, the act restricted immigrants by setting specific quotas per country which were 2% of a country's population that were already in America and recorded in 1890 (Immigration Act of 1924). However, the main part of the Immigration Act of 1924 this essay focuses on is the incorporation of the Asian exclusion act. The act’s writing and language are framed neutrally in legal terms which makes the law seem official and legitimate. Because of this neutral framing and legal language, it makes America look like it’s not against Asians or has a prejudice against them. In section 3 of the act, the lawmakers clarified how they would refer to banned Asians as immigrants when they said,” When in this act the term ‘immigrant’ means any alien departing from any place outside the United States destined for the United States” (Immigration Act of 1924). Because the law respectfully refers to Asians as an “immigrant” when addressing the ban, an argument can be made that the United States does not have racist motives for the ban because America would have referred to Asians in a derogatory way instead of using proper neutral and legal language. In addition, even though the act explicitly lists the ban in specific guidelines on Asian immigrating, the act never explains the reason or logic for the ban. Section 26 of the act says,” It shall also be unlawful for any such person to bring to any port of the United States any alien who is excluded by the provisions of section 3 of this act because unable to read, or who is excluded by the terms of section 3 of this Act as a native of that portion of the continent Asia and the island adjacent thereto described in said section” (Immigration Act of 1924). As seen with the word “unlawful” referring to the illegality of Asian immigrants moving to America, the ban is clear but the section does not explain why immigrants from the continent of Asia were banned in the first place and what led up to this ban. At the very beginning of the act, the first words are “ AN ACT To limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, and for other purposes” (Immigraiton Act of 1924). Again, the act shares its intention to ban immigrants but it lacks incorporating the country's motive for doing so. This leads us to the question: Why is America banning Asians in the first place?

Carson’s argument answers the first part of the question on why the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed by explaining the tension between Americans and Asians through economic competition. After explaining the push factors of the Chinese opium war from 1840 to 1842 and British Imperialism in China, Carson explains the pull factors that lead Chinese citizens to move to America. Significantly, The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 led to the transcontinental railroad being built which required a mass amount of labor. Carson explicitly mentions how railroad companies like the Union Pacific had their eyes set on Chinese laborers because most Chinese workers had experience in tough labor positions and employing Europeans or Americans was pricey (Carson). Logically, hiring more Chinese workers takes away a large proportion of job positions for American workers. With companies hiring Chinese laborers over American citizens, this created tension and issues because Americans not having jobs led to increased unemployment rates and poverty. Hence, American companies hiring foreign Chinese laborers over domestic American workers for railroad construction reveals one of the motives why the Immigration act of 1924 was passed because the government wanted to protect American citizens from having a fair opportunity to find a job which would lower the future unemployment rate. After the construction of the transcontinental railroad, Carson reveals how Chinese laborers came to work in California’s agricultural scene: Chinese workers made up as high as 20 percent of the workforce on farms across the state (Carson). With the increase in Chinese laborers working on California farms, there are fewer positions for white California residents to contribute agriculturally. Because American citizens are having trouble finding agricultural job positions, they logically pushed for the government to take action. Thus, the increase in Chinese workers working in the agricultural scene throughout the 19th and 20th centuries reveals why the Immigration act of 1924 was passed because the United States wants to halt American jobs being taken away by banning future immigration from Asian countries and surrounding islands. 

Lee’s argument that Americans held deep beliefs of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian ideology reveals the second reason why the Immigration act of 1924 was passed. Lee reveals how in 1907 there were riots alongside the pacific; Japanese bathhouses were damaged and a south Asian community was attacked in Bellingham Washington (Lee). Violent acts against Asian communities represent Americans holding deep prejudices against Asians in the 20th century. To stop the violence, the government of the United States was forced to acknowledge the existence of anti-Asian ideology in society and separate contact between Asians and white Americans. Thus, Violent acts targeted at Asian communities reveal anti-Asian ideology was the second reason why the Immigration Act of 1924 passed because the government wanted to stop future social tension between Americans and Asians. In addition, Lee explains how the Asiac Anti Exclusion League was created in the early 20th century and had operating chapters in numerous pacific cities (Lee). The Asiac Anti Exclusion League exemplifies the ongoing spread of anti-Asian ideology throughout society because the organization’s rhetoric spread the notion for the public to dislike Asians and ban them from immigration. Because the American government knew many of its citizens were against Asians, the government felt pressured to listen to the citizens’ needs. Accordingly, the active role of the Asiac Anti Exclusion League answers the question that anti-Asian ideology is the basis why the Immigration Act of 1924 passed because the government wanted to appease the population’s goal of keeping Asians out of the country. Finally, Lee also argues how Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 spread racial white supremacy ideology on how America needs to be a white state to fight off Japan (Lee). With President Roosevelt having a large influence on Americans' opinions, his anti-Japanese and white supremacist ideologies rubbed off on thousands of American citizens. His words and actions increased the amount of American-held prejudices towards Japanese and Asian citizens more than ever. Anti-Asian ideology illustrates how it led to the Immigration Act of 1924 because a past president influenced society and congress to keep America a predominant homogenous white state. 

Although the Immigration act of 1924 appears like their is no racial motivation for the Asian ban with the laws neutral language and the act represents no evidence on why there was an Asian ban in the first place, Carson’s argument successfully reveals the first reason the act was passed by illustrating the economic tension between Chinese and American workers, and Lee’s argument strongly conveys the second reason the act passed by listing the numerous examples of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian ideologies throughout society. The 18th and 19th centuries of America experienced a surge in immigration. Sadly, Americans were not used to their predominantly white state now incorporating diversity and inclusion. Whether sharing jobs or everyday interactions, Americans created tension with Asians. The mix of these factors led to the Immigration act of 1924 and future laws as well. America's immigration ban created a domino effect around the world because numerous north and south American countries were influenced to create their own immigration bans. On the bright side, America eventually hit a turning point in the late 20th and early 21st century because now we live in an inclusive society with higher percentages of mixed races, cultures, and ethnicities. 


Works Cited: MLA

United States, Congress. Public Law 68 - 139. United States Statues at Large, 1924  

Lee, Erika. “The ‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Exclusion in the Americas .” The "Yellow Peril" and Asian Exclusion in the America, Nov. 2007.   

Carson, Scott Alan. Chinese Sojourn Labor and the American Transcontinental Railroad , Mar. 2005. 

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