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  • Exclusion on the Ground:Racism, Official Discretion, and the Quotidian Enforcement of General Immigration Law in the Pacific Northwest Borderland
  • Hidetaka Hirota (bio)

In the 1890s immigration officers in Washington State busily enforced federal immigration law against newcomers from Asia. The officials had been executing the Chinese exclusion law since the 1880s, but their principal duty shifted by the middle of the 1890s to excluding the Japanese deemed to belong to prohibited classes under general immigration law applicable to all non-Chinese foreigners, such as paupers, people likely to become public charges, and people migrating under contract to perform labor in the United States (contract laborers). Charged with guarding multiple points of entry with limited staff, Washington officers found themselves traveling all the time. An officer named William Archer in Tacoma was instructed by his supervisor to visit Seattle twice a week to examine Japanese passengers arriving there. Immediately after completing the inspection, Archer was told, he should return to Tacoma "with as little delay as possible." At the same time, he was instructed, "your examination of these immigrants must be thorough."1 What would constitute a "thorough" examination when a small group of inspecting officers operated on a tight schedule to process a large number of foreigners? The federal immigration bureau had established basic procedures for immigration regulation, but in reality these procedures were subject to enforcing officers' personal interpretations. And for local officials, the "thorough" implementation of the law did not necessarily mean strict adherence to those procedures. In their zealous effort to guard the border against undesirable foreigners, some inspectors used their own criteria, stricter than the official guidelines, and even adopted unlawful methods. The present essay examines the role of official discretion in immigration law enforcement in the Pacific Northwest borderland at the turn of the twentieth century.

Immigration policy on the admission and removal of foreigners has recently emerged as a subject for particularly intensive scrutiny in American studies. [End Page 347] Building on earlier works examining the literary, cultural, and legal construction of race, scholars have investigated the myriad ways in which immigrants were categorized as excludable racialized others in American immigration policy.2 Nevertheless, the literature on the topic as it currently stands has some problems. First, while recognizing the importance of anti-Asian racism in the evolution of federal immigration policy, scholars have paid disproportionate attention to the Chinese, and our knowledge about the exclusion experiences of other Asian groups, such as the Japanese, is relatively limited. Another historiographical issue concerns methodology. American studies has produced fine works analyzing how racial ideology and ethnic prejudice guided the development of immigration law.3 Also, as part of the larger "transnational turn" in American studies, scholars have recently expanded the scope of their inquiry beyond the confines of the United States to situate American nativism in transnational contexts.4 At the same time, however, most studies tend to focus on a discursive analysis of anti-immigrant agitation, extralegal action against foreigners by nativist Americans, or the legislative process for the introduction of new regulatory policies. While the ideological, social, and political framework of restriction has been scrutinized, the question of how the general immigration law applied to non-Chinese Asians in practice awaits fuller exploration. In Japanese migration scholarship, American immigration policy is often explored in the context of its influence on the social and economic profiles of Japanese migrants, the formation of Japanese communities in America, and the identity of Japanese Americans. Some historians have recently investigated strategies Japanese migrants adopted to circumvent immigration laws and the roles of steamship companies in the Japanese attempts to secure admission into the United States.5 Nevertheless, the exact situation of law enforcement at the border, its impact on the lives of the Japanese who fell into the clutches of state power, and most importantly the implication of their experience with law enforcement for the development of American immigration policy remain unclear.

Adopting a sociolegal method that pays equal attention to the legal and institutional aspects of immigration policy and its practical implementation, this essay examines local inspectors' quotidian enforcement of general immigration law against the Japanese at the Washington–British Columbia border, highlighting the centrality...


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pp. 347-370
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