The need for foreign labor led to the first wave of immigrants to the United States from China. Chinese farm workers were hired by German settlers in Anaheim who needed laborers to cultivate grapes on their vineyards in Anaheim in the mid-19th Century. Asian American Studies scholar Patricia Lin notes that the Chinese were not only "expert grape growers and pickers, but they were used extensively in the construction of irrigation ditches, wine cellars, and casks."[ii] One hundred twenty-five Chinese would later work to extend the Southern Pacific Railroad line from Los Angeles to Anaheim in 1873 and to Santa Ana in 1877. By the 1890s, after Orange County broke off from Los Angeles County (in 1888), anti-Chinese feelings were running high, and shacks belonging to Chinese celery workers were burned down, as was the building of the Earl Fruit Company.

In May 1906 Santa Ana city authorities ordered the fire department to burn down Chinatown on the pretext of eradicating disease (a Chinese man was suspected of suffering from leprosy) (Item 4). The neighborhood had been occupied by about 200 Chinese, who were evacuated before the fire. Calling the fire a "holocaust," the Los Angeles Times reported, in language reflective of the era, that the "burned-out chinks" would be compensated.[iii] But in the end the city refused to pay the displaced residents more than trivial compensation.[iv]

Anti-immigrant groups organized around the state to "Keep California White" (Item 2). California began segregating schools: Chinese, Japanese and "Mongolian" children could not go to school with whites (Item 3). Despite the law's focus on Asians, Mexican children also were segregated. This caused Gonzalo Mendez, the father in a mixed Mexican/Puerto Rican family, and four other fathers, to file a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The resulting 1947 appellate court decision in Mendez v. Westminster (Items 5 and 6) found that the three Mendez children and other Mexican children could attend white schools, since the law did not directly apply. The case preceded the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education – argued before the Court by Thurgood Marshall, later the first African American Justice of the Supreme Court—that ended school segregation by law in the United States once and for all.

During 1950s, an Orange County Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born formed to defend the rights of the "Santa Ana Four," elderly Mexican immigrants who despite residing in the U.S. for decades, faced deportation.[v]