Monday, September 16, 2019

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A. Act to Prevent Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females

The early focus on exclusion came from California, where the majority of Asian immigrants had settled. As a result of the fear of the destructiveness of Asian prostitution and sexual slavery, in 1870 California passed an Act to Prevent Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes. As part of the Act, any Asian woman immigrating to California needed to obtain a license confirming her voluntary desire to migrate and validating that she possessed correct habits and good character. The law presumed guilt and it was the responsibility of the individual woman to prove she was not a prostitute. By targeting women and classifying them as prostitutes or otherwise debauched, California found a way to exclude a large number of Chinese immigrants. This Act was amended in 1874 to apply generally to immigrants, requiring a five-hundred-dollar bond for any immigrant who was a lewd or debauched woman.

The 1874 Act was put to use in August 1874, when a steamship from Hong Kong with 89 Chinese women docked in San Francisco. The State Commissioner of Immigration questioned the women on board and concluded that 22 of the women had immigrated for immoral purposes, so they were detained at the port on grounds of prostitution. The Commissioner determined that the women were prostitutes based on their demeanor, manner of dress, and responses about their marital status. A former missionary to China observed that the style of dress these women wore was similar to the style of dress that courtesans wore in China. Several other missionaries, Chinese merchants, and male passengers gave contradictory opinions about whether it was possible to identify Chinese prostitutes by inspecting their looks and clothing. The women were jailed, but the Ninth Circuit reversed the detention basing its decision on the Burlingame Treaty, the Fourteenth Amendment, and federal preemption of state laws regulating immigration. This case shows how much discretion immigration officials had to determine a woman's good character and truthfulness based on her demeanor, look, and clothing. It stands as an early example of the power given to the commissioner to perceive and judge the acceptability of immigrant subjects regardless of the way in which the immigrants presented themselves. Immigrant women were always under suspicion of being prostitutes, unless they proved otherwise, and their moral character was judged by Western standards and perceptions.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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