It may be hard to believe right now, but the earliest enforced immigration restrictions passed in the United States, targeted Chinese. These were the Chinese Exclusion Laws that were in effect 1882 to 1943 and were passed against a group that, at the time, only constituted about 0.2 percent of the national population.
The context in which this very strong hostility to Chinese and concerns about immigration arose was that, during the 1870s, the United States was experiencing very serious economic depression. This also combined with California’s status as a swing state in presidential elections and at that time, most Chinese were in California.
California was very concerned about its Chinese problem and in pursuit of California’s votes and the very strong feelings of powerful parties within California, particularly the Labor Movement, national politicians took up the cause of the Anti-Chinese movement and the legislation was passed with a wide majority in 1882 and, it is important to remember this longer history because it highlights the ways in which, up until 1965, immigration restriction in the United States was based on categories decided by race and national origin.
So, when we look at this problem of border control and border enforcement, every sovereign nation, of course, wants to be able to control who enters its borders, which remains, but we have to remember there is this powerful legacy of associating illegal immigration, undesirable immigration, with particular races of people.
Immigration restriction is also closely linked to the Chinese case because the legal precedence, the judicial renderings, considering the power of the state and the lesser rights of would-be immigrants and also the enforcement strategies were all built up around this idea that particular races of people were less welcomed in the United States and, so, there’s this long-standing problem when we try to talk about immigration restriction today that it had this very inequitable and, also, ineffective origins.
Even though the Chinese Exclusion Laws were passed, sought to, very tightly, restricting the entry of Chinese, there, in fact, were many problems because Chinese continued to enter the country although under terms of great duress. They were perceived, as a race, as being in the country illegally.