La Otra Arizona: SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Part four of La Otra Arizona series.

This month the Supreme Court is expected to take on Arizona’s SB1070, the now-infamous immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. As with any Supreme Court case, SB1070 has traveled a long road of litigation to get to this point: decisions by lower courts, injunctions, appeals, etc. Now we’re headed toward the final decision––perhaps.

The court’s ruling will be on what is essentially a technicality, a question of states’ rights. Does each state in the Union have the right to set its own immigration policy, or is that the sole purview of the federal government, as the constitution seems to assert? Many across the nation await the Court’s answer to that question, as 1070-style legislation has been enacted in other states such as Alabama and “self deportation” becomes an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

However, debating such a complex situation as immigration in such a narrow manner omits some crucial background to the question. What got us to this point, anyway? What has been Arizona’s relationship to immigrants for the 159 years since becoming a US territory in 1853? What groups were considered to be immigrants, and which groups were given a free pass to homestead wherever they liked? While there isn’t space here to fully explore those questions, much can be learned from one example given to us by Arizona history.

The first villains in the tale of Arizona’s “immigration problem” weren’t Mexican, they were Chinese. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, coming mostly from the area near Canton in the coastal region of the Guandong Province. They came across the Pacific because of economics––crushing poverty in their homeland and the lure of seemingly endless jobs in the US, building the transcontinental railroads, working in mines, restaurants and laundries.

By the 1870’s, after the they had finished building the first national transportation system in the US, these workers continued to face the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the young United States. This xenophobia was codified by such laws as the Page Act of 1875, which was an attempt to stop Chinese prostitutes from entering the country. Since most Chinese women were assumed to work as prostitutes, the law effectively barred almost all Chinese women from legal entry to the US. This legislative impulse culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred entry to all except those who worked in a few professions.

However, there existed a loophole: while Chinese were prevented from arriving from China to the US directly, they could still legally arrive via Mexico. Even after the loophole was closed in 1884, the southern US border continued to be a popular point of entry. Indeed, the Chinese were the first group to be denied legal entry to the US based solely on their nationality––they were the country’s first “illegal immigrants.”

Once anything is declared illegal, enforcement can’t be far behind. The modern US Border Patrol has its roots in the “Chinese Inspectors” first appointed in 1891.

The Anti-Chinese movement in Arizona predated the federal legislation, however. An 1869 headline in Prescott read “MORE CHINAMEN––Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week, and have gone to work. There are now four of them which is quite enough.” Nevertheless, their population continued to grow, in 1879 the same paper declared “Prescott has about 75 or 80 Chinamen, which is 75 or 80 too many. Now is a good time to get rid of them.”

Racist editorials in Arizonan newspapers have a long history indeed. In the 1880’s the Tombstone Epitaph, whose editor and former Apache Indian agent John Clum also organized an Anti-Chinese League to “rid the town of evil.” An aspiring politician, Clum was an early example of an attempt to curry xenophobia into support for a political campaign. In 2003 another Tombstone newspaper was carrying anti-immigrant headlines, such as “Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!” but this time the villains were Mexican and the editor was Chris Simcox, founder of a Minuteman-related group.

This Arizonan pattern isn’t hard to pick out. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain have all used fear of an immigrant invasion to help them win elections in recent years. Sex sells, but fear wins elections.

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes on 1070, Arizona will still be forced to address the fact that we live in a border state that belonged to another country just a few generations ago. Framing immigration as a “problem to be solved” is a symptom of historical nearsightedness, and only serves politicians on the campaign trail and businesspeople in the board room.

In the wider context of immigration in Arizona, 1070 is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. If we want to deal with this reality, we’ll work towards understanding immigration as a complex web of issues interwoven with the individual experiences of intelligent and capable human beings. No state or federal law is going to “solve” this––it’s up to us to reimagine what it means to live in a border state entering its second century. It is exciting and unavoidable work.

For further reading:

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands.

Luckingham, Bradford. Minorities in Phoenix a Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona.

Sheridan, Thomas. Arizona: A History.