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Asylum in the Midst of Chinese Exclusion: Pershing’s Punitive Expedition and the Columbus Refugees from Mexico, 1916–1921

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2011

Andrew Urban*
Rutgers University


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Copyright © Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2011

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1. The exact number of refugees was reported inconsistently. Immigration officials counted 524 Chinese refugees when they entered the United States in February 1917, whereas during the congressional hearings on whether the refugees deserved permanent asylum, the number given was 527. F. W. Berkshire, Supervising Inspector, Mexican Border District, El Paso, to Anthony Caminetti, Commissioner General of Immigration, Washington, D.C., 16 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Series A: Subject Correspondence Files, pt. 2: Mexican Immigration, 1906–1930 (hereafter cited as RINS) (microfilm, 17 reels, Bethesda, Md., 1993), reel 6; House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Registration of Refugee Chinese, Hearings on S.J. Res. 33 Permitting Chinese to Register under Certain Provisions and Conditions (hereafter cited as HCIN, Registration of Refugee Chinese), 67th Cong., 1st sess., 8 November 1921 (serial no. 8), 948. I would like to thank Vincent Chin for first calling my attention to the Columbus refugees during one of our frequent conversations at the National Archives in San Bruno, California. In addition, I would like to thank professors Donna Gabaccia, Erika Lee, Jeffrey Pilcher, and Kevin Murphy at the University of Minnesota; Patrick Jamieson, an undergraduate summer research student at Emory University; and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Policy History for their insightful comments.

2. The first Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, barred laborers of the Chinese race from entering the United States. The Act was expanded and amended on numerous occasions, and Chinese Exclusion is best understood as a series of laws. For a legal history of the different exclusion laws, see Salyer, Lucy E., Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill, 1995).Google Scholar

3. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 after Mexico’s longtime President Porfirio Díaz jailed his opponent, Francisco Madero, in order to avoid potentially losing an election. From Texas, Madero successfully initiated a revolt against Díaz by promising land reform and the end of autocratic rule. During the Revolution, leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa commanded irregular armies in remote regions of Mexico, while Constitutionalists and military leaders vied for control of the central government. For an overview of the complex history of the Mexican Revolution, see Knight, Alan, The Mexican Revolution (New York, 1986).Google Scholar

4. The willingness of states to exercise sovereignty over their populations through immigration restrictions and heightened border controls during this period was not unique to the United States. In Europe, the post–World War I refugee crisis was caused by an increase in racial and ethnic nationalisms, whereby states sought to expel and deny entry to populations defined as different and threatening to the dominant population. Torpey, John, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (Cambridge, 2000), 122–42Google Scholar; Zolberg, Aristide, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York, 2006), 243–92.Google Scholar

5. See, for example, Ngai, Mae, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, 2004), 1–14Google Scholar; Zolberg, A Nation by Design, 11–20.

6. In fact, as Ngai has argued, “The rush after World War I to legislate restriction in Congress,” which ultimately resulted in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, and a vast reduction in the number of European immigrants allowed to enter the United States, “while argued in the domestic political language of racial nativism, was a direct response to the specter of millions of destitute European war refugees seeking entry.” Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 10.

7. Although this article focuses on Chinese refugees, Japanese refugees from Mexico—who were subject to immigration restriction through the diplomatic Gentleman’s Agreement—were also a concern for immigration officials during the Mexican Revolution, albeit in much smaller numbers.

8. Worley, F. B., “Five Hundred Chinese Refugees,” Overland Monthly 71 (April 1918): 293.Google Scholar

9. See, for example, Eugene Briscoe, Edward, “Pershing’s Chinese Refugees in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62, no. 4 (1959): 457–88Google Scholar. During the initial days of their detainment at Camp Furlong in Columbus, it was common for newspapers and government officials to refer to the Chinese who entered with Pershing as the “refugees in Columbus,” which later became the “Columbus refugees.”

10. Caminetti to Louis Post, Assistant Secretary of Labor, 11 April 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6. First created in 1891, the Bureau of Immigration (under a different name) was initially part of the Treasury Department until it was transferred to the newly instituted Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. In March 1913, the redesigned Department of Labor, along with immigration, came under control of the executive office at the cabinet level.

11. Berkshire to Caminetti, 21 April 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

12. As Don Coerver and Linda Hall address, multiple government agencies held some form of jurisdiction over the border during the Mexican Revolution. The State Department was responsible for diplomatic affairs with Mexico and communication with the governments of refugees in the region, the War Department was responsible for border security and the Punitive Expedition, and the Treasury Department oversaw trade and customs, while after 1913 the Department of Labor dealt with immigration. Coerver, Don and Hall, Linda B., Texas and the Mexican Revolution: A Study in State and National Border Policy, 1910–1920 (San Antonio, 1984), 4.Google Scholar

13. For the text of Public Resolution 29, see United States Statutes at Large, vol. 42 (1921), 325–26.

14. Villa’s motives for attacking the United States are highly contested among historians. As Friedrich Katz has argued, the most common motive attributed to Villa is that he blamed United States’ military support for the defeat of his División del Norte troops at the hands of Venustiano Carranza in 1915, and knew that a raid across the border would provoke the United States into a military response. For a full account of the different motives attributed to Villa’s raid on Columbus, see Katz, , The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford, 1998), 545–82Google Scholar, and, for an alternate reading that focuses on the raid in the context of nation-building in the border region, Minna Stern, Alexandra, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910–1930,” Hispanic American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1999): 41–81.Google Scholar

15. Cumberland, Charles, “The Sonora Chinese and the Mexican Revolution,” Hispanic American Historical Review 40, no. 2 (May 1960): 192CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Prior to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910, the Mexican government actively recruited Chinese immigrant labor. Cott, Kenneth, “Mexican Diplomacy and the Chinese Issue, 1876–1910,” Hispanic American Historical Review 67, no. 1 (1987): 63–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16. As Moon-Ho Jung has argued, the Chinese “coolie” represented “a conglomeration of racial imaginings that emerged worldwide in the era of slave emancipation, a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined.” White laborers in the United States argued that Chinese immigrant workers did not control the terms of their own labor, and threatened to introduce a new form of economic competition between free and slave labor. Jung, Moon-Ho, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore, 2006), 5Google Scholar. On Mexican cultural attitudes and prejudice toward Chinese immigrants, see Hu De-Hart, Evelyn, “Racism and Anti-Chinese Persecution in Mexico,” Amerasia Journal 9, no. 2 (1982): 1–28Google Scholar, and De-Hart, Hu, “Coolies, Shopkeepers, Pioneers: The Chinese of Mexico and Peru (1849–1930),” Amerasia Journal 15, no. 2 (1989): 91–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar As Erika Lee has argued, at the level of government policy, discriminatory laws against the Chinese in Mexico (and in Canada) were highly influenced by practices in the United States. Lee, , “Orientalisms in the Americas: A Hemispheric Approach to Asian American History,” Journal of Asian American Studies 8, no. 3 (2005): 235–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, 626.

18. “Foreigners” in this case was also used to describe the Mexican-born children of Chinese immigrants. Cumberland, “The Sonora Chinese,” 192–95.

19. Allen, Inez V. and Thomas, Robert S., The Mexican Punitive Expedition Under Brigadier General John J. Pershing, United States Army, 1916—1917 (Washington, D.C., 1954), III–26.Google Scholar

20. Berkshire to Caminetti, 16 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

21. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 64.

22. Immigration officials’ lax attitude toward Mexican immigrants began to change during the Revolution, as Alexandra Stern documents. By 1916, for example, the city of El Paso greatly expanded its public health facilities, and by 1917 had begun to quarantine all Mexican immigrants entering the city. Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood,” 41–42. On the transformation of migrant Mexican laborers into “undocumented immigrants,” see Sadowski-Smith, Claudia, “Unskilled Labor Migration and the Illegality Spiral: Chinese, European, and Mexican Indocumentados in the United States, 1882–2007,” American Quarterly 60 (Fall 2008): 779–804.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23. Lee, Erika, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (Chapel Hill, 2003), 172.Google Scholar

24. Ibid., 111–46; Ettinger, Patrick, “‘We sometimes wonder what they will spring on us next’: Immigrants and Border Enforcement in the American West, 1882–1930,” Western Historical Quarterly 37 (Summer 2006): 159–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

25. Illegal immigration was of course difficult to measure. Lee estimates that at least seventeen thousand Chinese immigrants entered illegally across the Mexican and Canadian borders between the years 1880 and 1920. Lee, At America’s Gates, 171.

26. The Mexican Border District was created in 1907, and encompassed Arizona, New Mexico, and the land border of Texas. Berkshire, who had previously been in charge of enforcing Exclusion laws along the New York–Canada border and in New York City, was appointed its first supervising inspector. Ibid., 186.

27. C. L. Keep, Acting Inspector in Charge, Immigration Service, San Diego, to Berkshire, May 1911, Casefile 53108/71A in RINS, reel 3.

28. Luther Steward, Acting Supervising Inspector, Immigration Service, El Paso, to Commissioner General of Immigration, 19 March 1912, Casefile 53108/71C in RINS, reel 3.

29. In 1912, the secretary of state formally requested that immigration officials develop the means and accompanying policies necessary to accommodate Chinese refugees, although individual immigration stations already had their own systems in place. J. B. Densmore, Acting Secretary of Labor, to William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, 22 September 1914, Casefile 53108/71L in RINS, reel 4.

30. Kai Fu Shah, Chinese Minister, to Bryan, 13 June 1914, Casefile 53108/71L in RINS, reel 4.

31. Despite immigration officials’ request, the Punitive Expedition and the refugees came into the United States through Columbus, likely for military reasons. Berkshire to Pershing, 20 January 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

32. Pershing to Berkshire, 25 January 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

33. In July 1916, for example, the New York Times published a story about the Chinese refugees who had “flocked to American lines,” and raised the question of what would become of this group once the expedition returned to the United States. “Chinese on Army’s Hands: 300 with Pershing Fear Mexicans if Americans Withdraw,” New York Times, 18 July 1916.

34. Missouri Laundry Owners’ Association to Jacob E. Meeker, House of Representatives, 2 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

35. E. Mark Sullivan to William B. Wilson, Secretary of Labor, 7 February 1917; and John E. Raker, House of Representatives, to Wilson, 15 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

36. Post to Adolph Sabath, House of Representatives, 16 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6. As the correspondence to the Department of Labor reveals, Chinese exclusion was a political cause that received bipartisan support.

37. Caminetti to Wilson, 1 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

38. Berkshire to Caminetti, 6 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

39. Caminetti to Berkshire, 16 February 1917, Casefile 54152/79A in RINS, reel 6.

40. In a lengthy 21 April letter to Caminetti, Berkshire summarized the various proposals that immigration officials had put forth for the Columbus refugees up to that date. Berkshire to Caminetti, 21 April 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

41. Ibid.

42. This was not without controversy. After the Columbus refugees had been sent to San Antonio, immigration officials reported that accusations had surfaced that Consul Fong had accepted bribes in exchange for merchant certificates. Caminetti claimed that the Chinese legation was investigating these charges. A. W. McKee, Immigrant Inspector to George J. Harris, Acting Supervising Inspector, El Paso, July 31, 1917; and Caminetti to Harris, 11 August 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

43. Worley, “Five Hundred Chinese Refugees,” 293.

44. Berkshire to Caminetti, 21 April 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

45. Despite the passage of exclusionary legislation directed at Chinese immigrants, support for their restriction was far from unanimous. In particular, business interests, especially outside California, regularly promoted Chinese immigration and the qualities of Chinese workers. For an important theoretical discussion of how Chinese labor was imagined as an idealized source of complacent yet free labor in the nineteenth century, see Lowe, Lisa, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Laura Stoler, Ann (Durham, 2006), 191–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46. Albert Fall, Senator from New Mexico, to Newton Baker, Secretary of War, 2 May 1917, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

47. P. A. Simpson to Governor Lindsay Washington, 19 April 1917; Simpson to Consul T. K. Fong, El Paso, 2 April; and Simpson to Major John W. Parker, Camp Furlong, 28 March, Casefile 54152/79B in RINS, reel 6.

48. Wilson interpreted his right to suspend these provisions based on a loose interpretation of Section 3 of the 1917 Act, which he claimed gave the secretary of labor the power to make a “determination of necessity” when suitable labor could not be found within the United States. Wilson to John Burnett, House of Representatives, 8 June 1917, Casefile 54261/202 in RINS, reel 6; for Section 3 of the 1917 Immigration Act, see 39 Stat. 877, 1917.

49. Ibid. Burnett had written to Wilson threatening to raise a judicial challenge to his interpretation of Section 3.

50. In his 1921 annual report, the commissioner general of immigration reported that 72,862 Mexican agricultural workers had been admitted to the United States since the exception was made in May 1917. While the Department of Labor ordered employers to “return to Mexico” laborers under their supervision, the department estimated that some 21,400 Mexicans admitted with the program had “disappeared” and remained in the United States. Bureau of Immigration, Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration (Washington, 1921), 7.

51. When the Great Depression began, local and regional relief agencies in California and the Southwest facilitated the repatriation of approximately four hundred thousand Mexicans. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 72.

52. Vi Kyuin Wellington Koo, Chinese Minister, to Robert Lansing, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C., 1 May 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

53. San Antonio Light, 8 June 1917, cited in Elizabeth Nims, Amy, “Chinese Life in San Antonio” (M.A. thesis, Southwest Texas State Teachers College, 1941), 7.Google Scholar

54. Ibid.

55. William Tracy Page to E. W. Smith, Inspector in Charge, Immigration Service, San Antonio, 24 September 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

56. E. W. Smith, Supervising Immigration Inspector, San Antonio, to Immigration Service, El Paso, 25 June 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

57. Smith to Immigration Service, El Paso, 23 June 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

58. Smith to Inspector in Charge, Immigration Service, Laredo, Tex., 7 July 1917, Casefile 54152/79C in RINS, reel 6.

59. Both supporters and detractors of Chinese immigration argued that Chinese men belonged to a type of “third sex,” which allowed them to excel at feminine labor such as laundry work and domestic service. On the gendering of Chinese immigrant labor, see Lee, Robert, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia, 1999), 83–105Google Scholar; Leong, Karen J., “‘A Distinct and Antagonistic Race’: Constructions of Chinese Manhood in the Exclusionist Debates, 1869–1878,” in Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West, ed. Basso, Matthew, McCall, Laura, and Garceau, Dee (New York, 2001), 131–48Google Scholar; and Urban, Andrew, “An Intimate World: Race, Migration, and Chinese and Irish Domestic Servants in the United States, 1850–1920” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 2009).Google Scholar

60. Gompers, Samuel and Gutstadt, Hermann, Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion; Meat vs. Rice; American manhood against Asiatic coolieism, which shall survive? (San Francisco, 1902), 14–15Google Scholar. “Meat vs. Rice” was an allusion to the belief among white workers and labor leaders that the Chinese could subsist on a diet (and wages) that was intolerable to the white race.

61. HCIN, Registration of Refugee Chinese, 950.

62. Ibid., 949.

63. Ibid., 954.

64. Ibid., 965.

65. Ibid., 956–7.

66. HCIN, Registration of Refugee Chinese, 955.

67. Ibid., 972. As a result of his service, Jung was the only refugee who was allowed to naturalize while still living in the camps. Lucy Salyer has shown that if it had been challenged in court prior to 1935, it is unlikely that Jung’s naturalization would have been upheld. Whereas European immigrants who served in the American armed forces during the war became eligible for immediate naturalization, a similar policy for Asian immigrants would have contradicted the Exclusion laws that denied Asians the right to naturalize. It was not until 1935, after a decade of lobbying by Asian American veteran groups and white representatives of the American Legion, that Congress passed legislation that made it possible for Asian veterans of the armed forces to receive citizenship. Salyer, Lucy, “Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and U.S. Citizenship Policy, 1918–1935,” Journal of American History 91, no. 3 (December 2004): 848–76, 848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

68. Appropriation for transportation to China of certain Chinese refugees from Mexico, House Document 181, 66th Cong., 1st sess., U.S. Congressional Serial Set, session no. 7645, vol. 34.

69. On the allegations made by Hille, see House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Inquiry into Activities of Charles F. Hille with Relation to Certain Chinese Refugees; Hearing before Subcommittee, January 24, 1922, with Subcommittee Report, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (serial no. 2-B), 505–6.

70. HCIN, Registration of Refugee Chinese, 945.

71. Ibid., 945.

72. Ibid., 973.

73. Ibid., 971–72.

74. Lewis, Read and Schibsby, Marian, “Status of the Refugee Under American Immigration Laws,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 203 (1939): 74–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

75. Cumberland, “The Sonora Chinese,” 201–2; and Denis, Philip, “The Anti-Chinese Campaigns in Sonora, Mexico,” Ethnohistory 26, no. 1 (1979): 69–70.Google Scholar

76. On the United States and policies dealing specifically with migrants classified as refugees, see Zucker, Naomi and Zucker, Norman, Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America (Armonk, N.Y., 1996)Google Scholar; Zucker, and Zucker, , “From Immigration to Refugee Redefinition: A History of Refugee and Asylum Policy in the United States,” Journal of Policy History 4 (1992): 54–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Loescher, Gil and Scanlan, John, Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door, 1945 to the Present (New York, 1986)Google Scholar. Chronologically, all of these studies begin in the period leading up to World War II, when the United States barred the entrance of Jews and other Europeans threatened by Nazism. They do not address refugees from Mexico.

77. Rhoads, Edward J. M., “The Chinese in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 81, no. 1 (July 1977): 19Google Scholar. Rhoads estimates that San Antonio had a population of approximately fifty Chinese residents prior to the arrival of the Columbus refugees.

78. Briscoe, “Pershing’s Chinese,” 488. Briscoe does not examine the legal fact that the Columbus refugees who were able to have brought their wives and children from China, would have only been able to do so after proving their status as merchants. Chinese laborers in the United States were denied this ability.

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