Korean J Med Hist.  2014 Dec;23(3):573-606. 10.13081/kjmh.2014.23.573.

The "Oriental" Problem: Trachoma and Asian Immigrants in the United States, 1897-1910

Affiliations
  • 1EastAsia International College, Yonsei University-Wonju Campus, Wonju, Korea. jhyshin@gmail.com

Abstract

This essay examines the period between 1897 and 1910, when trachoma, a contagious eye disease, became an "Oriental" problem that justified exclusionary immigration policy against Asians entering the United States. It also investigates the ways in which the public fear and alleged threat of the eye disease destabilized and undermined the rights of Asian immigrants. Many scholars have explored the link between trachoma and southern and eastern European newcomers, in particular Jews, but they have not paid much attention to Chinese or Japanese immigrants, for whose exclusion trachoma played a significant role. This is primarily because the number of Asian immigrants was much smaller than that of their European counterparts and because the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which had already been in place, functioned as a stronger and more lasting deterrent to Asian immigration than exclusion or deportation through medical inspection. Moreover, into the 1910s, medical and scientific innovations for detecting parasitic diseases (e.g. hookworm) helped American authorities exclude Asians in larger numbers. Still, the analysis of the discourses surrounding trachoma and immigration from Asia, though short-lived, demonstrates the role of medical inspection in controlling and regulating Asian immigrants, in particular Chinese and Japanese, into the United States and in constructing their legal and political rights. In 1906, the fear of trachoma justified an order to segregate Japanese students from white children in San Francisco even at the cost of compromising their rights as citizens. Along with fierce criticisms against immigration officials by the American public, the 1910 investigation of the San Francisco Immigration Office problematized the admission of trachoma-afflicted Asian immigrants. Those critical of the Immigration Office and its implementation of American immigration policy called for exclusionary measures to limit the privileges of exempt classes and domiciled aliens and hinder the exertion of their rights to leave and reenter their adopted country. The two examples show that trachoma was a convenient excuse to condemn inefficient immigration policy and regulate allegedly diseased Asian bodies. In 1910, the federal government made a decision to relegate to steamship companies full responsibility for medical inspection at Asian ports. Since they had to pay a fine for every immigrant excluded at American borders for medical reasons, including trachoma, steamship companies carried out more rigorous examinations. With medical advancements and growing interest in parasitic diseases, trachoma soon lost its appeal to immigration authorities. However, the association of immigration, race, and disease has continued to provide a rationale for immigration control beyond American borders.

Keyword

trachoma; Asian immigrants; medical inspection; U.S. Public Health Service; American immigration station; Chinese Exclusion Act; San Francisco school segregation; San Francisco Immigration Office
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