One year ago, Robert Aaron Long walked into Young’s Asian Massage outside Atlanta, began firing and took four lives. Next, he drove to Gold Spa, killing three others before heading across the street to Aromatherapy Spa and shooting yet another person. In less than two hours, eight lives were taken: Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park and Yong Ae Yue. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
The Atlanta spa killings were not an act of random violence. While there has been a significant rise in discrimination against the Asian community since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-Asian racism is deeply intertwined with U.S. immigration law and history. Looking at the Atlanta massacre within this historical context reveals how past prejudices can spill over to the present. One gunman took the victims’ lives; however, exclusionary immigration laws and practices have been stripping Asian Americans, particularly women, of substantive citizenship rights and full political participation for more than 150 years.
Many are familiar with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Fewer are aware of the Page Act of 1875, one of the first laws passed by Congress to restrict immigration to the United States based on a combination of race and gender. The Page Act barred entry of Asian women immigrants on the premise that they were “lewd and immoral[.]” The language of the statute explicitly forbade “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution.” It especially affected Chinese female immigrants, whom the U.S. government cast as seeking entry into the United States as prostitutes.
In the 1850s and 1860s, as the California Gold Rush and American territorial expansion west brought an increased demand for labor, Chinese migration to the United States rose sharply. Thousands of Chinese railroad workers arrived during this time to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Western states increasingly used state and local laws to police morality. They helped drive a strategy to exclude sex workers generally and then to over-enforce those laws to effectively exclude Chinese women specifically. Even though studies indicate that only 6 percent of prostitutes in California were Chinese, at least eight state laws were created to single out Chinese women.
For instance, an 1874 California immigration law prohibited the importation of “lewd or debauched” women into the state. But the law was anything but race neutral; it presumed Chinese female immigrants to be “lewd or debauched.” It was later struck down by the Supreme Court in Chy Lung v. Freeman — but not because it was discriminatory. Rather, the court found it unconstitutional in light of the federal authority to address foreign affairs, and the decision ultimately paved the way for Congress to enact more severe and discriminatory laws.
Consequently, the Page Act was an outgrowth of stereotypes that framed Chinese women as “prostitutes” who were a moral threat to American society. California congressman Horace Page, namesake of the bill, justified the legislation based upon these prejudicial fears of Chinese workers and Chinese women. U.S. consular officials in Hong Kong responsible for the examination of Chinese immigrants before they traveled exerted great effort enforcing this law, even without specific evidentiary standards for determining whether a woman applying to enter the United States was a prostitute. Indeed, immigration of Chinese women decreased substantially.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act blocked entry of Chinese laborers into the United States. Asian immigrant exclusion was later expanded in the 20th century. The 1917 Immigration Act banned immigration from what was deemed the Asiatic Barred Zone and included other exclusions.
The most significant immigration exclusion based on nationality and race occurred in 1924 when Congress created a national origin quota system. The 1924 National Origins Act blocked immigration from Asia for the next 40 years. This history contributes to the continued imagery of Asian American and Pacific Islander women as foreign and alien, stereotyped as hypersexualized and assumed to be submissive.
Had there not been an artificial depression in immigration from Asian exclusion laws, the number of Asians in the United States would be far higher. In other words, for almost a century, Asians faced an artificially constructed barrier to immigration to the United States. It was not until the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a part of the flood of historic legislation passed in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, that the overtly racialized immigration laws were repealed. Even after formal exclusion ended, immigration laws, past and present, contribute to the current social and political marginalization of AAPI women, including those who are citizens.
Today, many laws and policies protect against categories of discrimination, such as those based on sex, race, ethnicity and national origin. However, such anti-discrimination remedies do not adequately capture discrimination based on perceived foreignness. Through the lens of the Page Act of 1875, one can better understand how the intersection of race and gender, combined with exclusion through the patina of a perpetual foreignness, can relegate AAPI women into a quasi-permanent state of alien status.
After his arrest for last year’s massacre, Long claimed that he viewed the spa businesses as a shameful temptation. Cherokee County Sheriff Captain Jay Baker denied that the attack was motivated by race and focused instead on Long’s sexual addiction, saying that Long had a “really bad day.” Baker’s focus on Long’s sexual motivation for the attacks failed to recognize that the violence appeared to be inextricably tied to the race and gender of the victims, as well as the stereotypes surrounding their identities and places of work.
Rumors circulated immediately after the massacre, construing the victims as noncitizen sex workers. The reliance on harmful stereotypes appeared to excuse the violence by both providing Long with a justification for the killings and attributing fault to the victims.
This unfair justification falls within a history of entrenched prejudices and violence. Anti-Asian sentiment and stereotypes have underpinned U.S. law and policy for more than 150 years. Reducing the Atlanta killings to a single motivator — sex addiction — perpetuates a long history of discriminatory immigration laws and negative stereotypical representation that commodifies and objectifies Asian and Asian American women in the United States.
Even in contemporary times, where we no longer recognize formal race and gender exclusions in U.S. immigration law, the historic categories of exclusion remain potent and dangerous. As the Atlanta massacre revealed, the result can sometimes be fatal.
This piece draws from the authors’ recently published work: “Decitizenizing Asian Pacific American Women” by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia and Margaret Hu (Colorado Law Review, 2022).