The initial national debates on immigration policy reflected the concerns of workers and officials who had to deal at the local level with large numbers of immigrants. These immigrants competed for low-wage, low-skill jobs on the railroads, in the mines, and in the sweatshops. Local officials had to handle increasing numbers of people on the streets and in the under-funded charitable institutions. At first, calls for national responses came from California, where much of the recent immigration was Chinese. Both labor leaders and local politicians focused on the differences of these Chinese immigrants from other recent immigrants.
The rights of “white men,” as workers, it was argued, were violated by clannish, immoral, animalistic “coolies” who were slaves incapable of becoming free men. Such racist ideas were not new and certainly not concocted for the purpose of improving wage rates for the working class. For example, witnesses at the congressional hearings held in San Francisco in 1880 referred to a popular book, India, China, and Japan, written in 1855 by Baynard Taylor, who wrote, “It is my deliberate opinion that the Chinese people are, morally, the most debased people on the face of the earth. ” This racial rhetoric provided a rationale for restriction.
Local political elites argued that the Chinese were criminal (gambling, prostitution, and perjury were attributes commonly identified with the Chinese, and all autonomous Chinese associations were regarded as organized crime institutions) and were uneducable in the definitively American institutions of republicanism and Christianity. Laborers concurred but focused on the “animalistic” characteristics of the Chinese. Witnesses complained, for example, that the Chinese were satisfied to live in dormitories without families and to eat from large pots of food without proper utensils.
This, it was argued, explained why they would work for less than workers of a European background. The conclusions of the hearings moved specifically toward defining national identity. As the safety of republican institutions requires that the franchise shall be only by those who have a love and appreciation for our institutions, and this rule excludes the great mass of the Chinese from the ballot as a necessary means of public safety, yet the application of the rule deprives them of the only adequate protection which can exist in a republic for the security of any distinct, large class of persons.
(U. S. Congress, House of Representatives 1880) This fusion of race, creed, and liberty was taken up again in the testimony of witnesses, especially from the states and labor leaders, as the means of differentiating potential desirable immigrants from the large numbers coming to America.
The report of the findings of the joint Senate and House investigations in the Fifty-first Congress stated that immigrants generally had been free and industrious, but “fifteen years ago, societies were organized throughout Europe to assist emigration; many municipal corporations, and even national governments provided money annually to deport their poor and to furnish a landing sum with which to begin life in the new world” (U. S.
Congress, House of Representatives 1891, ii). Heads of local asylums, hospitals, and charity boards testified that these immigrants were often convicts, paupers, idiots, lunatics, polygamists, prostitutes, and diseased people, as well as contract laborers. Contract labor was depicted as morally close to slave labor, especially the Italians brought in under the padrone system. As was true in earlier hearings, these ideas were expressed by labor and local politicians.
“One or more of the political parties in twenty-three of our States this year in their State platforms demanded additional regulation of immigration,” said the joint report, and “the great organized labor societies have made such a request, and the present alien contract labor law was formulated by the Knights of Labor”. Federal officials concurred and argued that state and local authorities were not capable of protecting Americans from foreign contagions–literal and figurative.
The rhetoric used by these national public authorities shows how the emerging policy network was defining the face of the nation. The new surgeon general of the Marine Hospital Service reported on his inspection of ports of immigration disembarkation at the request of the secretary of the treasury. He argued that these conditions were unhealthy and that better medical inspection by federal physicians was needed to protect from foreign epidemics.
This concern resulted eventually in legislation creating the Public Health Service and barring those with contagious illnesses from entering the United States. The federal authorities agreed with labor and local public officials that a uniform national framework of restriction administered by a distinct national agency could best protect Americans from the deficient, diseased, and unfree from China and Southern and Eastern Europe.
This concern defined American political identity in self-regarding terms of biological purity (foreshadowing the eugenics movement) and launched policy on the path of pruning from the flow of immigrants those without offending qualities. Policy development was thus shunted away from the path that contemporary immigration policy critics assume that it would or should have taken–that is, toward a labor market management tool. Instead, early administrative measures focused on detecting moral and biological superiority that distinguished the good immigrants from those contaminated with the diseases of the Old World.