Tuesday, February 05, 2013

At America’s Gates by Erika Lee (Book Review)

Lee’s central argument is that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 set America on the path to becoming a “gate keeping” nation. The Chinese Exclusion act, and its implementation, set the future pattern for the treatment of many other immigrants to America. Immigrant identification papers, border patrols, internal surveillance and harassment, and deportation were all administrative devices created by the Government in response to Chinese immigration (Lee, 42). Lee argues that America’s view of immigrants is ambivalent, and that although we are a nation of immigrants we are also a gate keeping nation. This ambivalent attitude shaped and continues to shape American immigration policy (Lee, 251).

Lee points out that admission and exclusion define national identity (Lee, 22). So then why do nations admit or exclude immigrant populations? One should first look to economic, political and social relationships for the answer. How fast can a nation safely assimilate an immigrant population without causing economic, political or social disorder? The pragmatic power relationships of a given time will determine how far “the gate” is opened to immigrants. The need for cheap labor in the nineteenth century allowed the door to swing open.

The Chinese came to America for economic gain, most with the intention of returning to China. In some ways this resembles a reverse form of economic imperialism. Just as the western powers went to China (and elsewhere) for quick profits and an improved standard of living for the mother country, so did the Chinese “fortune hunters”, come to the “Golden Mountain” (the United States), in search of quick profits. According to Lee, Chinese sojourning in America was, “...a strategy to preserve or increase wealth and to accumulate lands in the homeland....” (Lee, 122).

In an era before the establishment of a minimum wage or social safety nets, American workers rightly feared an influx of cheap foreign labor. Although it is unfair to criticize Lee for the book “she did not write”, a history of immigration would be more informative if it presented a more balanced view of the fears and concerns of those who opposed immigration and how and why these views changed as power relationships and pragmatic imperatives changed (e.g. the triumph of unionism).

As a study in inter-group power relationships Lee’s book is fascinating. The Chinese immigrants had little political power and were racially and culturally stigmatized. Despite these handicaps, as a group the Chinese were very resilient in the face of the organized discrimination of the state and the dominant society. Using a form of passive resistance (e.g. learning the loopholes in the laws, entry via Mexico and Canada) the Chinese continued to evade immigration laws. The tactics of the Chinese community is an interesting example of the “agency” of disempowered groups and the “tools of the weak.”

My titles on Amazon

My titles at Barnes & Noble

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

No comments: