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Polygamy, Prostitution, and the Federalization of Immigration Law

76 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2005 Last revised: 27 Mar 2013

Kerry Abrams

University of Virginia School of Law


When Congress banned the immigration of Chinese prostitutes with the Page Law of 1875, it was the first restrictive federal immigration statute. Yet most scholarship treats the passage of the Page Law as a relatively unimportant event, viewing the later Chinese Exclusion Act as the crucial landmark in the federalization of immigration law. This Article argues that the Page Law was not a minor statute targeting a narrow class of criminals, but rather an attempt to prevent Chinese women in general from immigrating to the United States. Most Chinese women migrating to the United States in the early 1870s were prostitutes or second wives in polygamous marriages. Congress feared the unorthodox Chinese practices of polygamy and prostitution, believing that these customs were reflective of an underlying slave-like mentality that rendered the Chinese unfit for democratic self-governance. By identifying and excluding Chinese women as prostitutes, the law prevented the birth of Chinese American children and stunted the growth of Chinese American communities. The Page Law was an important statute not only because of its goals, but also because of its method. America's international trade objectives and treaty obligations made outright restrictions on Chinese immigration untenable in 1875. By targeting marginal immigrants - women, and prostitutes at that - Congress was able to restrict Chinese immigration while maintaining a veneer of inclusiveness. Thus, in passing the first restrictive federal immigration law, Congress managed to exclude a group of people by defining them as outside the boundaries of legal marriage.

Keywords: immigration, marriage, prostitution

Suggested Citation

Abrams, Kerry, Polygamy, Prostitution, and the Federalization of Immigration Law. Columbia Law Review, Vol. 105, No. 3, p. 641, April 2005. Available at SSRN:

Kerry Abrams (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-924-7361 (Phone)

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