Civic Membership, Family Status, and the Chinese in America, 1870s–1920s
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Chinese women and children, or their advocates, brought many legal challenges to decrees denying them entry into the United States or seeking to deport them. Relying on more than 150 reported habeas corpus cases decided in West Coast federal courts between 1875 and 1924, we examine how courts helped to structure the rise of the administrative state through controversies involving the boundaries of citizenship, legal residency, and familial status. Cases involving those particularly vulnerable individuals whose statuses were conditioned upon their familial bonds helped to shape the meaning and scope of civic membership. Amid political conflict within institutions of the American state and increasing pressure to curtail immigration, the courts gradually ceded primary decision-making authority to administrative agents, legalizing the administrative state. However, courts continued to supervise what kinds of decisions administrators could make, what kinds of procedures administrators had to use, and what kinds of evidence had to be considered in order to render legitimate the exercise of administrative discretion. Chinese women and children seeking recognition of their citizenship or permanent residency posed what were perceived as moral and civic dangers to the family and the state. This rendered their direct rights claims less enforceable as administrators’ authority to determine status expanded.