By Published: April 27, 2023

CU Boulder professor wins award for article showing how 1917 U.S. immigration law conjoined anti-Asian and antiradical politics

Seema Sohi grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, where she and her family attended Gurdwara Sahib Stockton, the first Sikh house of worship established in the United States. 

However, it was only when she began delving into Washington, D.C., archives to research the history of anticolonial politics of South Asian immigrants that she discovered the place she knew so well was considered a hotbed of anticolonial sedition by the British Empire and the U.S. government. 

“I grew up going there. How in the world did I grow up not knowing this story?” says Sohi, associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.  

Image of Seema Sohi

Seema Sohi is associate professor of ethnic studies at CU Boulder. She examines the radical anticolonial politics of South Asian intellectuals and migrant workers based in North America during the early 20th century as well as the inter-imperial efforts of the U.S. and British states to repress them.

It’s fair to say Sohi now knows quite a bit about the story. In 2014, she published Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America (Oxford University Press), and the Organization of American Historians recently announced that she had won the 2023 Binkley-Stephenson Award, given annually for the best article appearing in the Journal of American History, for “Barred Zones, Rising Tides, and Radical Struggles: The Antiradical and Anti-Asian Dimensions of the 1917 Immigration Act.”

Sohi wrote the article on request for the journal’s September 2022 special issue, which focused on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts in the United States.

The 1917 Immigration Act, which Sohi describes as “the most sweeping and restrictive immigration law to date,” included blanket exclusions for numerous categories of people, including “idiots,” alcoholics, anyone deemed “mentally or physically defective,” as well as anarchists and polygamists. 

And for the first time, the legislation created a “literacy test” intended to keep out southern and eastern Europeans deemed unassimilable. The law also included provisions to exclude and deport undesirable or anarchist people and created “barred zones” that excluded all immigrants from Asia except Japan and the Philippines (at the time a U.S. colonial possession), ostensibly because of labor competition. 

But Sohi argues that, contrary to popular belief, the “barred zones” also were intended to target nascent anticolonialism and radicalism among Asian immigrants.

“These aspects of the immigration act are usually studied separately, as if they have nothing to do with one another,” Sohi says. “What I argue is that they need to be understood as mutually reinforcing and mutually constructed.”

South Asian workers, notably Sikhs, came the United States seeking work. Many arrived on the West Coast, where they became agricultural and lumbermill laborers. Though most came to the U.S. with few intentions beyond making money to send back home to their families in Punjab, many became disillusioned with the racism and hostility they encountered, including race riots and being driven out of work camps. 

“They were politicized not in India, but in Oregon and California, as a consequence of how they were being treated,” Sohi says. “The more racism and hostility they encountered, the more conversations they had, and eventually they organized the movement in 1913.”

From its headquarters in the heart of San Francisco, the Ghadar Movement published an eponymous periodical spreading the idea of overthrowing British rule in India that was sent to their fellow expatriates around the world, from Canada to Manila, where many Sikhs worked as police officers or military troops.  

With the advent of World War I in Europe, the Ghadar Movement decided to strike. Hundreds from around the world returned to Punjab, where they tried to convince soldiers to stop working on behalf of the British Empire.

“They were upset and disillusioned, fired up,” Sohi says. “But in Punjab, they thought they (the Ghadar Movement) were out of their minds—‘There’s no way we can do this!’”

Alongside bolshevists and anarchists, Asian Americans played a formative role in how the U.S. state was beginning to conceptualize what national security means and how it should be protected. Threats to imperialism were seen as threats to national security."

On the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. government had itself become concerned with Ghadar, infiltrating the movement with spies and sharing information with the British about the movement. Some were arrested before they could leave for India, while others were arrested, jailed and even executed by the British after they arrived.

“One of the arguments I make in the book is that repression of this radical movement was not just about Ghadar, but about repressing what it might unleash—an anticolonial revolt across the globe,” Sohi says. 

Contrary to much public understanding, the United States was itself a colonial power at the time and was eyeing the Asia Pacific region as a natural theater in which to expand its power and influence (as was Japan, a clash that would eventually lead to the U.S. entry into World War II). Sohi sees the U.S. government’s efforts to repress Ghadar as a key step toward what would become an extensive state-security apparatus throughout the coming century.

“Alongside bolshevists and anarchists,” Asian Americans “played a formative role in how the U.S. state was beginning to conceptualize what national security means and how it should be protected,” Sohi says. “Threats to imperialism were seen as threats to national security.”

The American government’s repression of Ghadar was in part to appease an ally, the British Empire, but “also about not wanting Asian anticolonialism to be a force in the world contrary to its own imperial interests in the Asian Pacific region.”

Though little known to most Americans, Ghadar was no mere blip of history, Sohi has found in her research. Though it failed, the movement was seen as having come “dangerously close to toppling the British Raj during the war, and U.S. officials believed that the party’s efforts had the potential to embolden colonized subjects and racialized minorities across the globe,” she writes.

And the Immigration Act of 1917 was no mere signpost on the history of Asian exclusion in U.S. history, she argues. 

“It was also a key moment of confluence in which anti-Asian and antiradical currents that had been circulating in American public discourse and congressional debates for decades came together in one immigration law,” the article concludes.

At the top of the page: Sikh men on the Komagata Maru, 1914. Wikimedia Commons.