Notice & Comment

The Racial Roots of the Federal Administrative State, by Jonathan Weinberg

Federal administrative agencies have existed since this nation’s founding – the First Congress created the Patent Office, the Departments of War, Foreign Affairs, and Treasury, and more. But in the century that followed, Congress rarely tasked any of those agencies with adjudicating the status of individuals so as to hand out benefits and burdens.[1]  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to be sure, broke that pattern. It established a set of federal commissioners to make the most consequential determination of individual status possible – a ruling that a person was or was not an escaped slave, to be handed over to a purported owner or his agent. The procedure established for that determination bore no relation to anything we would think of as modern administrative law. Slaveholders provided testimony ex parte, and the alleged slaves could say nothing; commissioners received higher fees for ruling in slaveholders’ favor than for ruling against them.

The next important time the federal government set up an agency to adjudicate the legal status of individuals, its methods were different. Like the Fugitive Slave Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 enabled a system of racial oppression. But in contrast to the Fugitive Slave Act, which covered freewheeling lawlessness with the barest fig leaf of administrative legality, the Chinese Exclusion Act gave rise to a body of administrative law, and a body of administrative mechanisms and methods, that survived and lie at the root of today’s administrative state.[2]

The Chinese Exclusion Act reflected deep racial prejudice. U.S. Congress members and others attacked Chinese people as disease-ridden, dishonest, degraded, and incapable of self-government; “a race of people,” in the words of the California Supreme Court, “whom nature has marked as inferior.” Legislatures enacted legal attacks including state laws (many struck down in court) forbidding them from securing business licenses, working for corporations, fishing in public waters, owning real estate, working mining claims, or indeed entering the state. Mobs engaged in anti-Chinese mass violence, such as the burning of Seattle’s Chinatown in 1885.

The 1882 federal statute forbade the entry of most Chinese into the United States, and directed the deportation of any Chinese person who had entered in violation of its requirements. This performance of racism, though, required a new bureaucracy facing new challenges.  The U.S. had never before enacted a large-scale restriction on entry of free persons. It had no passport or visa infrastructure; the law would not require white noncitizens arriving on our shores to present passports for another 35 years. So the bureaucracy had to break new ground in enforcing the statute and the fine distinctions it drew.

How were officers to adjudicate whether a person seeking to enter the U.S. was a forbidden Chinese laborer or a permitted upper-class “merchant”? a forbidden new entrant or a permitted returning resident?[3] or, indeed, whether the person was a U.S. citizen, since lower courts had ruled as early as 1884 that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen with full rights to leave the U.S. and return? 

For that matter, how were federal officers to know whether any ethnically Chinese person living in the U.S. had legal status? The system’s underlying assumptions, repeated over and over by policy-makers, were first, that Chinese people would routinely lie to gain immigration benefits; and second, that they were physically nearly indistinguishable from one another. What sort of bureaucracy could be put in place to make their status visible?

To answer those questions, Congress and the agency (first the Customs Bureau, then the Bureau of Immigration in the Treasury Department, then the same Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor) developed new techniques of bureaucratic investigation and control.  They provided for initial adjudications by line personnel with the possibility of internal administrative appeal. They provided for agency rulemaking and federal-state partnerships.  Their targets brought challenges in sometimes-sympathetic courts, leading to battles over the availability of judicial review, exhaustion, the “jurisdictional fact” doctrine, burdens of proof, standards of review, and the demands of due process. There were controversies over the scope of government’s enforcement discretion in light of resource constraints.

We can see, in other words, the seeds of nearly all of modern administrative law in the administration of Chinese exclusion. To bolster that system, Congress mandated that every Chinese migrant in the U.S. carry federally-issued identification papers with his or her photograph and identifying information. The Bureau put in place increasingly elaborate, searchable and cross-referenced, databases of information about Chinese individuals, to be used in connection with systematic and standardized interviews of would-be entrants and applicants for immigration benefits. For a time, it mandated that some Chinese individuals be subject to a system of precise body measurement developed for identifying criminals.

The Chinese exclusion regime worked badly, and was never very good at achieving its stated goals. It was effective in enforcing racial domination.  If you were an ethnically Chinese person in the U.S. in that time period, you lived subject to the possibility of arrest on suspicion of illegal presence. The exclusion laws enabled, on a broad scale, the humiliation, labelling, and arbitrary detention of individual Chinese.

But the system of Chinese exclusion was not just an exercise in domination and humiliation. It was conceived, rather, as embedding racial hierarchy within the rule of law. Its framers hoped to achieve accurate determinations, within a legal structure, regarding the racially-motivated categories into which individuals should be sorted. That legal structure incorporated the possibility of judicial review. It required a functioning system of federal administrative law. To that end, racial exclusion laid the groundwork for much of modern public administration and administrative law. That’s our heritage. Our current system grew from that soil.

Jon Weinberg is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and Professor of Law at Wayne State University Law School. Follow him on Twitter here.

[1]           One exception: the U.S. military pension system: Congress as early as 1776 legislated pensions for disabled Revolutionary War veterans. In 1818, it extended pension eligibility to anyone who had served in the Continental Army and needed public assistance. This required it to develop procedures for determining whether claimants were disabled, whether their injuries were incurred as part of their service, whether they were indigent, and more. Most of that work, though, was done by local judges sitting as benefits adjudicators.

[2]           Gabriel (Jack) Chin first made this point in his pioneering Regulating Race: Asian Exclusion and the Administrative State, 37 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 1 (2002).

[3]           Initially, the law allowed Chinese people already resident in the U.S. to leave here and return; the government would close that door in 1888 (stranding many U.S. residents outside the country), and then partially reopen it in 1894.