Because of the railroad expansion across the nation, in 1881 El Paso grew from a small town – a stop along the way to the west – into a regional transportation hub. Its predominant Mexican American demography started to diversify. Because of the railroad, El Paso’s economy grew significantly resulting in immigrants settling in the city. By the 1890’s El Paso’s population had grown from about 3,000 residents to over 10,000. Much of the growth, if not all of it, was the result of the Southern Pacific Railroad that traversed El Paso. Like all major railroad works of the time, Chinese labor connected the railroads from sea to sea.

After the completion of the railroad in 1883, the Chinese started settling around downtown El Paso. They opened laundry facilities, grocery stores and chophouses. Chophouses were restaurants serving different cuts of meat. Their restaurants were so successful that by the late 1890’s almost half the El Paso restaurants were owned by Chinese immigrants.

They offered lower prices than their competitors.

Shortly after the railroad reached El Paso in 1881, Congress blocked Chinese immigrants from coming to America. In 1882, the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act to stop the immigration of what Americans considered “undesirable” immigrants. This law was the first of other laws over six decades targeting Chinese immigrants.

The First Undocumented Immigrant Laborers

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first American immigration law targeted at a specific nationality and class of immigrant – poor Chinese laborers.

Mexicans were freely allowed to travel back-and-forth through the border during this time.

Regardless of the law, the Chinese continued to migrate to America through Canada and México bypassing the border control points.

The Chinese were the first undocumented immigrants. America had a great demand for unskilled labor.

In El Paso, government officials began a program of photographing all Chinese that were apprehended crossing the border illegally. The program was an attempt to disrupt Chinese immigrants trying to cross illegally a second time after being apprehended previously. [El Paso Immigration Supervisor letter, December 21, 1914]

Apprehended Chinese were simply returned to Canada or México allowing them easy access to try again. The photography program was an attempt to keep repeat offenders from trying again.

According to Nancy Farrar’s 1970 book, The History of the Chinese in El Paso, El Paso was the largest Chinese smuggling center for Chinese entering the country illegally.

The exact numbers of Chinese who immigrated to America during this period is difficult to ascertain as records are sporadic. However, it is estimated that about 20,000 Chinese entered America each year in violation of the exclusion laws.

Several dens or tunnels have been discovered in houses in Central El Paso. Although rumors have persisted that they connect across the border, no conclusive evidence has been found. However, an El Paso immigration official complained that chambers under some El Paso houses were used to hide Chinese who had crossed the border illegally.

The Border Patrol was not created until 1924. It was created in response to smuggling because of Prohibition. Prior to the Border Patrol there were the Mounted Guards whose job was to stop the Chinese from crossing the border.

One of the driving forces behind targeting Chinese immigrants was the growing monopoly of businesses that the Chinese owned. Their willingness to work for lower wages threatened the American workforce.

The Chinese were not only successful in the restaurant business in El Paso, but they also controlled the laundry industry of the city for about three decades.

The rapid growth of the city’s population led to overcrowding, lack of housing and city services. City officials were having a difficult time keeping up with the city’s rapid growth.

Unlike the Chinatowns of San Francisco, the El Paso Chinese settled across the city. In 1883, the Chinese were mostly concentrated between Texas and St. Louis streets in downtown El Paso, north of the Segundo Barrio neighborhood. A second Chinese neighborhood was at the corner of First Street and Oregon.

El Paso 1883 map with Chinese communities marked

Mostly, the El Paso Chinese lived near their businesses. By the late 1880’s, the Chinese businesses had expanded south towards the border with México. Some Chinese, feeling ostracized in El Paso left the city and moved across the border to Cd. Juárez.

As El Paso’s economy grew, the Chinese were displaced by Anglo business owners and land speculators. The area around San Jacinto became especially lucrative. By 1905, the Chinese were mostly gone from downtown El Paso. They had moved their businesses closer to the border.

Although El Paso was more tolerant towards their Chinese neighbors, the Chinese were, nonetheless, subjected to discrimination by city officials and residents. Chinese restaurant owners chose to name their establishments Anglo-friendly names like the El Paso Restaurant to avoid the discrimination of Chinese in the city.

Unlike other Chinese businesses, like laundry services, the Chinese-owned restaurants were not displaced away from downtown. The Chinese-owned restaurants continued to dominate the restaurant industry well into the 1930’s. The city’s hotels preferred Chinese-owned restaurants near them because pricing was generally lower than their competitors. Additionally, the Chinese restaurants were named generically and served American comfort food.

Urban revitalization gentrified the Chinese away from downtown El Paso. They were forced closer to the border where land speculators had no interest in the land along the border. The reason was because prior to the 1963 Chamizal Treaty the land along the border had no clear title as the land was disputed between México and the United States.

However, the gentrification of the Chinese away from downtown El Paso and the Chinese Exclusion Act forced the Chinese to leave the border town for other cities in the interior of the country. Being Chinese near the border invited unwanted attention from government officials.

Today, there remains little proof of America’s first undocumented immigrants and the workers that helped to build the city.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...