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1891: Early Immigrant Smuggling I: Julian Ralph's Investigation

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Under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it was theoretically impossible for Chinese laborers (as distinguished from merchants, students, etc.) to enter the US.  One way around the law was to use someone else's documents to establish citizenship.   Books about Chinese-American history make frequent mention of these "paper sons."

The books say little or nothing, however, about two other ways by which working-class immigrants evaded the law. One was simply to sneak across the border.  The other was to declare oneself to be a citizen upon arrival, whether or not one had papers.  This forced immigration officials to take the would-be immigrant off his ship and to let a federal court decide.   Surprisingly, most such decisions went in favor of the immigrant.

In 1890 Julian Ralph was assigned by Harper's Monthly to investigate the smuggling of Chinese into the US.  After traveling to Canada and interviewing a large number of experts and participants, he concluded that several thousand illicit Chinese immigrants were entering the country each year.

Most came in from British Columbia. An average of 1910 new immigrants arrived in BC from China each year.  According to Ralph's Canadian informants, "99 in 100 of these are intending to smuggle themselves over the US border."

Ralph goes on to say that "There is no part [of the US-Canada border from Montana on west] over which a Chinaman may not pass into our country without fear of hindrance; there are scarcely any parts of it where he may not walk boldly across it at high noon. Indeed, the same is measurably the case all along our northern boundary even upon the St. Lawrence north of our State, where smuggling has always been a means of livelihood whenever varying tariffs made it remunerative.

"The lawless practice does go on from one end of the border to the other. Chinamen at work in the forests beside the Columbia steal in by the Kootenay trail; others cross the St. Lawrence, others the plains and prairie, others the Great Lakes.  Those who transport the Chinamen are all white men. The resident Chinese act as their confederates and as the agents of the smuggled men, but do no part of the actual smuggling ..."

According to Ralph, Chinese immigrants were also smuggled over the southern border.  He quotes a recent expose showing that Chinese were landing at Guaymas [on the Gulf of Cortez), making their way by train to a point near the border, hiking through the Sonoran desert, and finally crossing to Tucson in Arizona.  The dangers of the trip, still a favorite for illicit immigrants, were illustrated in a dramatic etching of a Chinese man dying of thirst in the desert.

Ralph goes on to note that there were other ways into the US that did not involve clandestine border crossing. In 1890, an average of 60 Chinese laborers per month were arriving by ship in San Francisco and claiming to be American citizens by birth.  All of these had to be allowed to land, in order to permit an investigation of their claim in the federal courts.

A large proportion of these putatively illicit immigrants succeeded.   "Less than twenty- five per cent, are sent back to China. The claimants of citizenship may be men who were once before laborers here, and who possess our violated pledges in the form of certificates; some may in reality be born citizens."   Ralph estimated that about 1000 immigrants per year were entering the country in this way. 

Julian Ralph, The Chinese Leak, Harpers Monthly, 1891, Vol 82:  515-525

See also 1906  Early Immigrant Smuggling II:  The Arrest of Pang Sho Yin and "Ducky" White