From Chinese Exclusion to Contemporary Systemic Racism in the Immigration Laws
Indiana Law Review, forthcoming 2021
20 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2021
Date Written: 2021
California today is widely considered to be a staunchly pro-immigrant state. That, however, has not always been the case. In fact, the Golden State in the late 1800s experienced widespread anti-Chinese agitation and frequent violence directed at Chinese immigrants and businesses. Political pressure ultimately pushed Congress to enact the first comprehensive federal immigration laws, the Chinese exclusion laws. This Essay argues that, surprisingly enough, those laws continue to reverberate through U.S. immigration law and its enforcement and allow systemic racism to flourish in the contemporary immigration system.
This Essay specifically analyzes how anti-Chinese activism in a small California mountain town at the tail-end of the nineteenth century led to state-wide, and ultimately national, discriminatory immigration laws. Responding to sustained political pressure from the West, Congress in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an infamous piece of legislation that began in earnest the process of excluding Chinese immigrants—and later immigrants from all of Asia—from the United States. In upholding the Act, the Supreme Court in an extraordinary decision declared that, because Congress possessed “plenary power”—absolute authority—over immigration, the immigration laws were completely immune from review of their constitutionality.
Well more than a century later, the plenary power doctrine lives on. Surviving the revolution of constitutional rights of the twentieth century, the doctrine enabled President Trump, a zealous advocate of tough-on-immigration measures, to pursue the most extreme approach to immigration of any modern president. As the nation attempts to understand how the Trump administration was able to no less than brutally treat immigrants, it is an especially important moment to consider the evolution of the plenary power doctrine, which today permits the treatment of immigrants in ways completely inconsistent with modern constitutional law. Ultimately, the national commitment to remove systemic racism from the nation’s social fabric requires the end of the plenary power doctrine.
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