Opinion

OPINION | JEFF JACOBY

Back in the day, immigration demagogues denounced not Mexicans, but Chinese

“The Wasp,” a weekly magazine in San Francisco that frequently published Sinophobic propagand, published this piece by  George Frederick Keller in 1882.  (Oakland Museum of California)

Oakland Museum of California

The Wasp, a long-defunct weekly magazine in San Francisco that frequently published Sinophobic propaganda, published this cartoon by George Frederick Keller in 1882.

The largest mass lynching in the United States took place in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1871. It was a ghastly eruption of lethal racism, but the victims — 18 men and boys, dragged from their homes and summarily hanged or shot — weren’t black. They were Chinese, and they were murdered by a mob, nearly 500 strong, that included some of the city’s leading citizens.

“Their first victim was an elderly, inoffensive Chinaman, whom they seized and dragged headlong through the streets, beating and abusing him at every step,” the Los Angeles Daily Mirror later recounted. At the corner of Temple and New High streets, the lynch party tied a noose around the old man’s neck and hauled him up. “The rope broke and the unfortunate wretch, innocent of any wrong, asked for mercy from his cruel tormentors. This was denied with jeers, and he was again hung up; this time successfully.”

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Fear and loathing of immigrants isn’t a new phenomenon. Today, much of that animus is directed toward Mexico, and Donald Trump has made it the cornerstone of his presidential bid.

But it’s worth looking back to the decades after the Civil War, when hostility toward the foreign-born focused especially on the Chinese. Politicians, demagogues, and the press denounced Chinese laborers with unvarnished contempt and advocated fervently for sealing the border to keep Chinese migrants out.

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“From their Asiatic hive they . . . come pouring forth,” intoned Edwin Meade, an academic and congressman from New York, in an influential 1877 address to the Social Science Association of America. The “coolie,” he said, is a “mere animal machine” — “devoid of conscience,” “disgustingly filthy,” and “utterly incapable of any improvement.” Labor leaders demanded that Congress prohibit all Chinese immigration to the United States. The Wasp, a weekly magazine in San Francisco, churned out reams of Sinophobic propaganda, depicting Chinese workers as perpetual-motion monsters whose presence deprived American-born white natives of jobs, or as opium-addicted savages spreading immorality and disease.

For years, political leaders and grass-roots agitators clamored for the gate to be closed. In 1882, with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it was. Chinese workers were barred from entering the United States, and all Chinese people living in the country were required to register with the federal government. The law, which was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, flatly banned anyone of Chinese origin from becoming a naturalized citizen.

Fast-forward to 2016, when Trump’s hard line on Mexicans entering the United States has been the most consistent element in his presidential campaign. Returning from his brief meeting with Mexico’s president a couple weeks ago, Trump repeated his vow to construct an “impenetrable, physical” wall on the southern border, and to force Mexicans to pay for it. Hillary Clinton has touted her own past support for a militarized barrier between the two countries.

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We’ve gotten used to hearing immigration restrictionists noisily complain that the United States has become “a dumping ground for Mexico,” or warn that America is being swamped by such a tidal wave of Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, that its very identity is imperiled.

Yet the country that sends the most immigrants to the United States each year isn’t Mexico. It’s China.

In 2013, according to the Census Bureau, China was the country of origin for 147,000 US immigrants, compared to just 125,000 who came from Mexico. Over the previous 10 years, immigration from China and other Asian countries had been rising, while immigration from Mexico decreased. Since at least 2009, reported demographer Eric Jensen, more immigrants to America have been Asian than Hispanic. By 2013, the disparity was unmistakable: Asians accounted for 40.2 percent of the total immigration flow. Hispanics made up only 25.5 percent.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal crunched even more recent numbers. “In 2014, there were 31 states where more immigrants arrived from China than from Mexico. . . . Even in California, a top destination for Latinos, Chinese immigrants outnumbered Mexican immigrants.” (The data include all immigrants, legal and illegal.)

In short, well before Trump had even launched his campaign, the alarms about Mexican immigrants swamping the border were already years out of date. Like most other anxieties and terrors about immigration — that they steal jobs, or have high rates of crime, or refuse to assimilate — the “invasion” of Mexicans is an overblown myth.

We look back today at the demonization of Chinese immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s and are aghast that so many Americans could have spouted such ludicrous, ugly stuff. We have come a long way from the Chinese Exclusion Act to today’s robust Asian immigration flows. A generation or two hence, Americans will look back at the harsh and unworthy immigration politics of our time, and be equally aghast that Mexicans were so reviled, and US citizens so willing to be deluded.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Jacoby.
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