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Chinese Exclusion, Photography, and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy

From: American Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 1, March 2006
pp. 51-77 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0032


This article argues that photographic identity documentation was central to the implementation of Chinese exclusion and to the development of U.S. immigration policy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Starting in 1875, as restrictionists implemented and expanded exclusion policies, they developed an extensive system of photographic identity documentation to attempt to control Chinese immigrants. The Immigration Bureau used this system as a model for the expansion of photographic identity documentation to other racialized immigrant groups and, in 1924, to all immigrants. This aspect of immigration policy has been overlooked by most historians both because of their focus on written records and because of their attention to European immigrants, who remained largely untouched by official photographic practices until they were restricted as part of the racially based National Origins Act of 1924. However, the history of Chinese immigration identity documentation shows both that exclusion was central to the development of U.S. immigration policy and that visual regulation was a key component of immigration restriction.

Chinese immigrants fought against their exclusion, representation, and regulation by the United States through three key strategies. First, elite Chinese community leaders launched diplomatic, legal, and political challenges to the implementation of new photographic documentation policies. When these challenges were unsuccessful, documented Chinese took control over their own photographic images, presenting themselves as respectable individuals in their identity documentation. Finally, excluded Chinese resisted their rejection under the exclusion laws by manipulating photographs and photographic documentation in order to enter the United States. In contrast to legal efforts to resist photographic immigration regulation, these extra-legal strategies successfully undermined the discriminatory exclusion policies, challenged the purposes of documentation, and questioned the photograph's emerging authority as evidence.

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