On February 2, 1917, the first of more than 2,700 civilians accompanying the return of the United States' Punitive Expedition crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and arrived in Columbus, New Mexico. The troops of the Punitive Expedition had entered Mexico in March 1916 with the goal of defeating Francisco "Pancho" Villa and putting a stop to his raids along the border. Unable to capture or kill Villa, during the course of its operations in Mexico the Expedition had gained a substantial following of civilians who sought to enter the United States with the army. Among those who had become attached to the expedition were a group of 524 Chinese laborers and merchants who had sold goods to American troops, and worked for the army as servants and cooks. Fearing reprisals against their lives and property as a consequence of having worked with the Punitive Expedition, the Columbus refugees—as they would come to be called by the media and American officials—sought safety in the United States. Because the majority of the individuals who comprised the Columbus refugees were barred from entering the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Acts, their situation provoked a contentious and protracted debate as to whether they deserved asylum and, if so, what form asylum would take.
The Columbus refugees' arrival in the United States occurred amid an extensive policy discussion on how to uphold legal restrictions against Chinese immigration in the face of an influx of displaced Chinese migrants fleeing persecution and violence in Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from roughly 1910 to 1920, immigration stations in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas played frequent, albeit temporary, host to Chinese residents of Mexico seeking refuge from violence across the border. Immigration officials, following orders from the State Department in Washington, adopted a policy in which Chinese residents of Mexico threatened by immediate violence were allowed temporary asylum in immigration detention centers. Kept under guard in order to ensure that they did not attempt to escape into the interior of the United States, American officials provided accommodation to Chinese residents of Mexico only as long as they deemed conditions across the border unsafe. Since the passage of the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigrants had regularly entered the United States from Mexico, taking advantage of the government's inability to control and police the vast and largely remote border region. Concerned that the Chinese would seize any available opportunity to circumvent exclusion laws, officials promoted policies that they argued were necessary in preventing Chinese asylum seekers and immigrants posing as asylum seekers from taking advantage of temporary refuge and maneuvering to stay in the United States permanently.
From the second half of the nineteenth century to the end of World War II, the U.S. immigration laws focused almost exclusively on legislating and establishing territorial sovereignty, a process that was fundamental to the creation of the modern nation-state. Immigration policy, and racial arguments about which immigrant groups represented desirable or undesirable additions to the nation, were consciously isolated from universal and global concerns such as guaranteeing the safety of dispossessed and at-risk populations. Following World War I, the term "refugee" became a common means of distinguishing involuntary migrants and stateless populations from immigrants, yet this understanding did not win refugees any special concessions when it came to entering the United States—except in rare and anomalous instances like the one discussed in this article.
Although scholars have acknowledged the humanitarian consequences of U.S. inaction regarding refugees in the interwar period, and the racial origins of this policy, the earlier denial of Chinese refugees from Mexico during the 1910s has gone largely unnoticed. The denial of permanent asylum to the overwhelming majority of Chinese migrants fleeing Mexico for the United States during the Mexican Revolution reveals that the Chinese, as the first immigrants subject to restrictions, also preceded European immigrants in being barred from entering as refugees. Chinese refugees attempting to leave Mexico often found themselves to be virtually stateless. Lacking protection from the Mexican government (and at times actively targeted by it), Chinese refugees relied on the distant and weak Chinese government to cover...