This article examines the historical correlations between Chinese exclusion law enforcement and the career patterns of immigration attorneys in San Francisco. Built on a rich historiography about Chinese exclusion and state formation in the United States, it views these attorneys as a unique interest group to make sense of their intermediary role between the administrative state and the transnational Chinese community. Drawing from both traditional sources and a collection recently made public by Stanford University, it looks at three groups of Euro-American lawyers who, for five decades, dominated the business of Chinese immigration legal services at the Golden Gate: lawyers from the private sector, former United States attorneys, and officials-turned-attorneys who emerged in the late 1910s. The article argues that these lawyers’ background and priorities closely corresponded and evolved with the decline of judicial review and the rise of the immigration authorities’ near-plenary power over the project of exclusion. The lawyers’ work provides fresh insights into the key paradox in the history of Chinese exclusion, that despite its constant search for efficiency, local enforcement of the exclusion laws often reduced the anti-Chinese policy to routinized, counterproductive procedures. It finds that many US attorneys and immigration inspectors who later chose to become attorneys for the Chinese had been diligent federal employees. Their shifting positions prove bureaucratic malice towards Chinese immigrants to be anything but monolithic and challenge historians’ established dichotomy between an anti-Chinese state and Chinese in America.

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