Historians have long been fascinated by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which marked the first—but by no means the last—time in U.S. history that immigration was limited on the basis of race and class. Political historians, who were the first to explore the topic, focused on the legislative strategies and racial ideologies that enabled the passage of the 1882 law and its several successors. Asian American historians called attention to the chilling effects exclusion policy had on Chinese immigrant communities, then began to trace the transnational networks immigrants developed to resist the laws. The latest scholarship shifts the focus from the internal dynamics of ethnic communities to the race-making powers of the state, or what Mae Ngai has so aptly described as "the architecture of race in American immigration law." In this vein, for example, Lucy Salyer's Laws Harsh as Tigers details the daily operation of exclusion law in the thousands of court challenges brought by Chinese immigrants denied entrance into the United States.1
Erika Lee is the first scholar to weave these disparate strands together. Her [End Page 812] book, At America's Gates, offers a detailed examination of the motives and methods of immigration officials, a moving portrayal of the experiences of Chinese immigrants, a provocative argument that Chinese exclusion fostered the turn-of-the-century growth of the American nation state as well as its budding imperial projects, and a fascinating analysis of the transnational business of illegal immigration as it developed over the six decades, from 1882 to 1943, during which exclusion laws were in effect. All this scholarly substance is wrapped up in such a well organized and clearly written package that At America's Gates is, in a nutshell, the single most useful book on the history of Chinese exclusion.
At America's Gates opens with a relatively brief, but nonetheless intriguing, discussion of the perennial question of the motives behind the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Political historians are currently debating whether the white workingmen in San Francisco who first proposed excluding the Chinese did so out of gut-level racism or because they objected to contract labor, but Lee wisely shifts this discussion to new ground. Rather than emphasizing the "labor" aspect of Chinese exclusion, she emphasizes the "western" part of the equation, arguing that the late 19th-century U.S. West became the birthplace of anti-Chinese legislation because of the "history of extending and reinforcing white supremacy in the region and its unique relationship with the federal government." (p. 29).
After this discussion has set the stage, the substantive body of the book rests on a treasure trove of sources—the 100,000+ immigration files compiled by U.S. government officials on every Chinese who applied for admission in the port of San Francisco. Lee is the first historian to make systematic use of these sources, which were opened to scholars only in the late 1980s, and her careful analysis of a random sample of 600 of these files grounds a wonderfully lucid overview of the nuts and bolts of Chinese exclusion policy. Her second chapter focuses on immigration officials, tracing their transformation from a motley collection of politically appointed anti-Chinese ideologues acting under the nominal direction of the Customs Service into a career civil service unit of the Bureau of Immigration. The third critiques the assumptions these officials brought to their work (that Chinese ought to be excluded and could not be believed) and shows how these assumptions were institutionalized in judgments about who was and wasn't a laborer or a merchant, a prostitute or a wife. The fourth chapter surveys the range of strategies Chinese immigrants developed to evade the laws, first trying to overturn them, and then using the government's own paper trail against itself, working the system by hiring lawyers, courting white allies, coaching each other through the detailed interrogations conducted by immigration officials, and trading tips on how to...