We (the Chinese) Were the First "Undocumented Immigrants" from Mexico
Unknown to most people, we, the Chinese, were the first “undocumented immigrants” from Mexico. Actually, we were the first undocumented immigrants from anywhere. This is because we were the first ethnic/racial group to be singled out for official exclusion by the United States.
As many people do know, we first came to the U.S. to make our fortunes during the California Gold Rush (in the 1850’s, not too long after half of Mexico was stolen in the U.S.-Mexico War; see last week’s blog post for more on that). Following the Gold Rush, about 40,000 of us were recruited as cheap labor to help build the railroads. We did the most dangerous jobs for the lowest wages.
After the railroads were built, many of us went into jobs in California as domestics, launderers, miners, and manufacturing plant workers. We were also among the state’s first agricultural laborers. By the 1870’s and early 1880’s we made up about a quarter of all laborers in California. As immigrants, we worked for cheap. Too cheap for some.
Anti-Chinese sentiment--“sinophobia” as it’s called--expressed itself in the forms of “anti-coolie” clubs, bigoted newspaper editorials, and boycotts of Chinese commercial products. In reaction to the Chinese presence in mining, anti-Chinese activists successfully lobbied in 1852 for an invidious tax targeting Chinese miners. By the 1860’s and 1870’s, we were the targets of a political smear campaign by the Democratic Party and racist protests by white labor union organizers. The Democratic Party scape-goated us as a means of regaining political traction after their blundered attempt to preserve slavery. Because of our willingness to work for low wages, we were condemned as unfair competition (sound familiar?) by white laborers.
Tragically, the anti-Chinese movement of the 1870’s and 80’s was also justified in religious terms. Some people tried to justify their racism against us by saying it was God’s will that we be expelled from the country (does that sound familiar today, too?). As a grad student back in the day, I was horrified when I came across this prayer from a San Francisco pastor, Isaac Kalloch, (who later went on to become mayor of the Golden Gated city—not so golden to the Chinese). On July 4, 1878 he prayed:
“We believe, O Lord, that the foundations of our government were laid by Thine own hand; that all the steps and stages of our progress have been under Thy watch and ward…We meet together today to celebrate the anniversary of our national birth, and we pray that we may be enabled to carry out the divine principles which inspired our noble sires and others, and we pray that our rules may be righteous; that our people may be peaceable; that capital may respect the rights of labor, and that labor may honor capital; that the Chinese must go…and good men stay. We believe Thou wilt hear our prayer when we pray that we believe to be right.” (As quoted in The Indispensable Enemy, by the late UCLA history prof Alexander Saxton).
I cringe every time I read this prayer because it is a disgusting misrepresentation of Jesus (I am pretty certain that Jesus cringed as well when he heard this prayer). This pastor used Christianity, and his official clerical office, to justify discrimination against Chinese immigrants. We came to the U.S. in order to be able to work hard and feed our families, and were initially recruited to serve as cheap laborers for jobs that nobody else wanted to do. After the railroads were built and we began to branch out into other types of work, we became unwanted. In other words, people wanted our labor, but didn’t want to recognize us as human beings, made in the image of God, and worthy of full political inclusion in the United States of America.
To boot, as articulated by Mr. Kalloch, some people even felt that our expulsion and exclusion was God’s will. As a Chinese-Mexican Christian American I find this reasoning sickening and antithetical to all the teachings of Jesus and the Bible.
God is a God of justice and He doesn’t play racial favorites—not then, not now. He loves all people more than we could ever hope for or imagine, and He desires for all of us to come to know Him. Many verses of Scripture warn against the mistreatment of immigrants and speak of God’s love for all people of all the beautiful ethnicities He has made.
Here is a small sampling of what the Bible says about God’s love and concern for immigrants:
“The Lord watches over the strangers [immigrants]; He relieves the fatherless and widow.” Psalm 146: 9.
“You shall not pervert justice due the stranger [immigrant] or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge.” Deuteronomy 24: 17.
“He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10: 18-19
“Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.” Deut 27: 19.
“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. Exodus 23: 9
In addition to all of these strong warnings against the mistreatment and oppression of immigrants, the Bible is also clear about the fact that God does show racial favoritism.
As the Apostle Peter famously says in Acts 10: 34-35:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Paul echoes similar sentiments in his famous speech to the Greeks in Athens:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17: 24-27.
And, of course there are Jesus’ own famous words:
“For God so loved the world [not just Europeans or white Americans or Chinese or Asians or Mexicans or Africans or any limited ethnic or cultural group] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3: 16-17.
Oh yeah, now back to the topic of undocumented immigration. This virulent racism as expressed by Mr. Kalloch, white labor unions, and the Democratic Party led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law barred the legal immigration of Chinese immigrant laborers to the United States—zero, zilch, nada. This law was subsequently extended and was not repealed officially until 1943. Even then, things didn’t really change for us Chinese until 1965 because between 1943 and 1965 only 105 of us were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. per year!
And that’s why we turned to Mexico [my paternal homeland]. Many of us went to Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of circumventing the Chinese Exclusion Laws and getting smuggled into the U.S. During these years, there were virtually no restrictions on the numbers of Mexican immigrants that could come to the U.S. We, the Chinese, were the ones singled out for exclusion. And so we invented undocumented immigrant smuggling from Mexico!
Coyotes (smuggling guides), fake papers, smuggling by boat and train and plane, underground tunnels—you name it. We came up with it first. Even the earliest border patrol units were created to keep us out—they were called “Chinese inspectors.” We were the first ‘undocumented immigrants.’ Don’t mess with us.
Robert Chao Romero