The border is America’s greatest magic trick, and our “papers” have always hidden what we dare not reveal, in plain sight. 135 years ago in May, at the peak of a wave of the “Chinese Must Go!” movement and racist mob violence across the West, the United States defined the for the first time, on paper, what it meant to be “without papers.” The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 was, in fact, the byproduct of reams and reams of stories, epithets, propaganda and political mythology, but it distilled itself into a codified decree that had a simple intent: keep the Chinaman out, keep America for the white man, and yes, Uncle Sam had all the power in the world to police the borders that guarded against the barbarism that threatened to invade our shores.
The other byproduct of the law was the continued, relentless migration through that fortified border: out of need, naked ambition, and ephemeral dreams, and it hasn’t stopped. Every word the state has ever uttered in attempting to combat “illegal immigration” has been vastly outweighed by a trove of stories about how people are willing to cross at any price. Today these images are both stunning and strikingly resonant with the memes propagated on social media: same message, different accent:
Before we talked of bad hombres absconding over the border or bricking up walls to divide families, Chinese men were employing the expertise of global smuggling networks to draw up elaborate documents depicting a route they may or may not taken, a family background they may or may not have spun out of air, a marriage that might or might not have occurred in their home village, and a blurrily photographed "paper son" who might, over the years, multiply, on paper, into one, two, more, more narratives of desperation. For generations, in came the stories, piling onto steamships loaded with characters, brimming with the calligraphy of an improvised marketplace in which the chets of legitimacy, race, and capital were freely traded under the banner of Gold Mountain. That was the flag everyone knew, before we invented the strange American compounds of “the American Dream” or the amalgam of the “Melting Pot,” we had the alchemy of exclusion.
As Erika Lee wrote in her history of Chinese immigration, At America’s Gates:
Undocumented Mexicans, for example, have been derogatorily labeled "wetbacks" or "fence jumpers." During the exclusion era, Chinese immigrants were referred to as being "smuggled" or "imported" into the country. Both terms invoked earlier charges that Chinese did not voluntarily come but were rather pawns under the control of powerful corporations or clandestine organizations. The connections made between smuggled goods such as liquor and drugs and Chinese migrants also portrayed the Chinese as contraband commodities that did not belong in the United States.... Placing the burden of illegality on the shoulders of the immigrants only, these terms ignore the large role that the US government, US immigration law and business interest played and continue to play in promoting illegal immigration.
Or as one “illegal” put it more eloquently in a poem scrawled on the walls of the Angel Island detention center in San Francisco:
The Chinamen, though, were able to navigate these oppressions with increasingly sophistication, by capitalizing on their status as "contraband." So they brought along with their menacing yellow hoards a steady stream of opium to be smoked by hungry white Victorians, girls to be sold for sex, and other vices that, for all the walls, America found irresistible. They beat the border by inverting the injustice of the law, jus as America has always found its "illegals" irresistible. And no one knew this better than, say, Mexicans who did a roaring trade along the Rio Grande, and the underground bankers of Chinatown who lorded over the underworld that was the East's answer to the white man's empire.
One successful merchant at a Mexican border town reported to a colleague that the border was a growth market: "I have just brought seven yellow boys over and got $225 for that so you can see I am doing very well here." At the time, an immigration inspector dismissed border policy as "a hollow mockery." And a bewildered official investigating the border in a border town whose legendary mystique still persists today, noted "Chinamen coming to Ciudad Juarez either vanish in thin air or cross the border line."
The illegals had hardly "vanished," though America has always found it to make them disappear when convenient and reappear when it serves the powerful—as the specter on the campaign trail, as the boogeyman in the closet of the many depravities of whiteness. Then, and now, "our" barbarism masquerades as "their" savagery.
Immigration's gift has always been to "import" from the other what America never knew they had. Including freedom that we can only appreciate in the bodies of the unfree, and all the love we take in despite the walls we build.
--May 8, 2017