Critical Essays Asian Americans and the Law


Partly as a result of expansion and the Gold Rush of 1849, West Coast industry stepped up the importation of Chinese and Japanese laborers in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, these foreigners were often ill-treated and ill-fed by their employers, and many of them died from work-related injuries and illnesses to which they had no natural immunity. Those who survived became an important ingredient in the building of the first intercontinental railroad, as well as in mining, agriculture, canneries, logging, fishing, meatpacking, and salt production. Asian workers quickly earned a reputation as steady, efficient, dependable workers. These qualities, however, worked to their disadvantage by bringing them into competition with whites, who soon pressed for laws granting citizenship to only whites and nonwhites of African descent. Thus, California's Alien Land Act of 1913 declared Asian Americans ineligible not only for citizenship but also for property ownership. A 1920 law prevented anyone who owned land from selling it to Asians or leaving it to Asian heirs. To circumvent outright disenfranchisement, Asian-born entrepreneurs deeded new purchases to the Nisei, their American-born offspring, or Kibei, Japanese Americans who were educated in Japan.

Urban Japanese often found successful careers in food service, laundries and tailor shops, domestic employ, gardening, shopkeeping, hotel service, bathhouses, and barber shops. To strengthen their financial base, family-run businesses networked with other Asian-American suppliers, laborers, and small loan companies. Such community-based connectedness became the lifeline of immigrants who found large, white-owned banks closed to their needs. To assure a stable population, Issei, or native-born Japanese, sought Japanese brides, some by mail order from Japan and others from Hawaii. They developed their own law enforcement, insurance, fraternal, burial, and educational associations, as well as their own worship centers. Thus a sense of unity strengthened and enlarged a closed community which rapidly rivaled the less cohesive white population.

By 1920, even more laws began to encroach on Japanese-American success. California legislation prohibited Japanese employers from hiring white females and charged prohibitively high rates for fishing licenses. Authorities stated outright the purpose of such measures: to limit privileges for immigrant Japanese so that fewer nationals would leave Japan to seek opportunity in the United States.

These West Coast restrictions did not go unnoticed in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt, as a gesture to Japan, ordered an end to segregated schools. The Japanese government reciprocated by limiting the number of nationals who were allowed to emigrate.

By 1924, pressures from voters forced Congress to establish a quota system as a means of stabilizing living and working conditions in California, Oregon, and Washington — states in which Asian immigrants often outnumbered established racial groups — that is, whites, Indians, and Hispanics. The force which finally broke the prejudicial laws was the growth of the second wave of Asian Americans, the Nisei, or those born in the United States and endowed with constitutional protections to property, education, land ownership, voting, and office-holding rights.

To solidify anti-Asian forces, whites began to form leagues, labor unions, and clubs such as the American Legion and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, all of which excluded Japanese Americans. To counter with their own unifying organization, the newcomers formed the powerful Japanese-American Citizens League, which reached national status by 1930.

Following the traumatic uprooting of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during the WWII years, continued upheaval weakened resolve among many of those who suffered the most — particularly the loss of health, livelihood, homes, and personal property. Many fled the West Coast, where blatant anti-Asian slogans prohibited them from seeking jobs and housing. However, by 1950, Japanese Americans began to return west to compete with a growing mix of southern blacks, Mexican Hispanics, and local whites.

In 1952, under the direction of the Supreme Court, the old order of restrictive laws and prejudicial treatment ended with a repeal of the Alien Land Act of 1913. Japanese Americans began to invest directly in their nation through business, public office, and integrated neighborhoods. That same year, Congress passed Public Law 414, granting Japanese aliens the right to become naturalized citizens of the United States.

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