The Page Act and restricted immigration
During the Civil War the state of California enacted the first anti-immigration law in the United States, directed at keeping Chinese labor out of the state. California passed additional laws restricting immigration during and following the war, as did New York and other states. When the laws were challenged in federal court in 1875 the United States Supreme Court overturned the state laws, ruling that immigration was within the purview of the federal government in Chy Lung v. Freeman. Congress took up the issue of immigration laws for the first time, passing the Page Act of 1875, the first federal immigration law.
Horace F. Page was a Republican member of the House of Representatives from California who introduced the act named for him. The Page Act was directed at restricting Chinese immigration, which had for some time been a concern for Californians, who resented the cheaper wages the Chinese were willing to accept in the mining and railroad industries. The Page act restricted the immigration of “undesirables” and identified such as being those entering the country to engage in forced labor or prostitution, specifically from China, Japan, or other Asian country. The Act capitalized on growing Anti-Asian prejudice in the United States.
The prejudice was fueled by more than just the Chinese willingness to work cheaply. It was directed against Chinese customs, dress, and behaviors, fed by no less an authority than the American Medical Association, which published findings that the Chinese, as well as other Asians, carried with them the germs of diseases for which they had developed immunity, but which would ravage whites. The fear of disease was focused on Chinese women, specifically prostitutes, as carriers of disease. It was customary for Chinese men of the time to have wives and concubines, with the concubines often working as prostitutes, to supplement their master’s income in China.
The fear was that similar arrangements would arise in the United States, and the Page Act identified concubines as prostitutes, denying them entry into the United States, which in practice became extended to all Chinese and other Asian women. For the most part, enforcement of the Page Act was ignored among Chinese men, since the big mining companies and railroads profited from the cheap labor they provided. Deciding who was a prostitute was done at the American consulate in Hong Kong, assisted by the British. Under the act, from 1879-82 less than 200 Chinese women were allowed to take passage to the United States, under the consulate of Confederate veteran John Singleton Mosby.
In 1882, 39,579 Chinese were granted entry into the United States under the Page Act, with women accounting for 136 of them. Later that the year Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which further restricted Chinese immigration. The Page Act was so restrictive of Chinese women that it prevented families in the United States, since there were few Chinese women to marry in the communities. The first of the national immigration laws instituted by the United States was thus both racist and sexist, and used the thin guise of morality and public health to restrict what was viewed as an undesirable community in the United States.