The Business of Immigrant Smuggling: Race, Law and Criminal Opportunity During the Exclusion Era

Jeffrey Scott McIllwain, San Diego State University

One of the unintended consequences of legislation forbidding many Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. was the opportunity for criminal entrepreneurs to make a hefty profit by smuggling Chinese into the U.S. To accomplish this goal, many of these entrepreneurs formed syndicates that operated within the numerous social systems of organized crime existing throughout the United States. Using numerous documents found in the records of the U.S. Immigration Service and the U.S. Customs Service, newspaper reports, and other primary source material, one is able to reconstruct a number of these syndicates. In the face of an overwhelmingly hostile racial climate, these syndicates transcended ethnic boundaries, aligning Chinese smugglers and their Chinese patrons with upperworld and underworld members of the non-Chinese community. These syndicates operated on an international scale, readily adapted to changes in the law and its application (or lack thereof), and were quite sophisticated in their methods of operation. Many of these syndicates also created institutions and practices that victimized illegal Chinese immigrants upon their entry into the U.S. This paper argues that the nature and actions of these syndicates leads us to reconsider basic scholarly assumptions about the criminology of organized crime and the role of the underworld in shaping current historical discourse about Chinese Exclusion and the larger Chinese-American experience.

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Updated 05/20/2006