Chinese Exclusion Acts (Major Acts of Congress)
Diana H. Yoon and Gabriel J. Chin
Excerpt from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore/p>
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that ... until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come, ... to remain within the United States.
From the time they first migrated to the United States, Asians were a special concern of federal immigration policy. In 1862 Congress intervened in the importation of "coolie" labor, unskilled workers usually from the Far East who were paid low wages. Congress began direct regulation of immigration with the Page Law of 1875, which was designed, legislators claimed, to curtail the immigration of women from "any Oriental country" for the purpose of prostitution. That statute in fact operated to exclude most Asian women.
The demand for restriction of Asian immigration was still not fully satisfied. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58) to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. Enacted in response to a national anti-Chinese campaign, the law was the first of a series of restrictions on Chinese immigration. Because the term "laborer" was understood to include those trained to perform skilled labor, most potential immigrants were barred from entering the country. Although naturalization was already restricted to whites and those of African birth or descent, the Chinese Exclusion Act also specifically prohibited the naturalization of Chinese.
The 1882 act led to restrictions on other Asian immigrants. The policy of Asian exclusion, the only explicitly race-based
FROM CALIFORNIA TO NATIONAL POLITICS: ECONOMICS AND RACE
Chinese immigration became a national issue by the 1860s. The strongest currents of anti-Chinese sentiment mobilized in California, where the discovery of gold and demands for labor had attracted a visible population of Chinese workers. The 1870 census reported that more than 99 percent of Chinese residing in the U.S. lived in the West. This migration had been made possible by the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 (16 Stat. 739), which established full diplomatic relations and free immigration between China and the United States.
Although historians have debated the primary cause of the exclusion laws, most point to the influence of the white labor movement in pushing for restrictive legislation. White Californians who claimed to be threatened by the "yellow peril" voiced demands to end Chinese immigration. Meanwhile, workers in the East called for an end to imported contract labor. Many viewed this type of labor as repugnant to individual freedom as well as harmful to the interests of white American workers. In response, Congress enacted labor laws aimed at preventing the importation of labor through overseas contracts, a practice blamed for the economic depression in the labor market. Hostility toward Chinese laborers intensified during periods of economic depression, with racial and cultural prejudice accompanying arguments about undesirable labor competition. No numerical limits were placed on immigration in this period, and Chinese immigrants represented a small proportion of all immigration. Nonetheless, economic depression and rising class conflict created opportunities for politicians to attack Chinese workers and push immigration restriction as a national issue in their election campaigns.
CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT OF 1882
Initial efforts to curb Chinese labor immigration faced a legal obstacle: the Burlingame Treaty's provisions for free immigration between the United States and China. This was to change in 1880. Persuaded by anti-Chinese forces, American immigration commissioners renegotiated the treaty in pursuit of the twin goals of immigration restriction and advantageous trade relations. Congress, having secured the power to regulate Chinese immigration, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The debates in Congress reflected blatant racism and a discriminatory prejudice not only against the Chinese but against African Americans and Indians as well. As one senator argued, "the Caucasian race has a right, considering its superiority of intellectual force and mental vigor, to look down upon every other branch of the human family ... We are the superior race today."
Under the act, Chinese laborers already residing in the U.S. were allowed to leave and return by obtaining a reentry certificate from the collector of customs. This provision was challenged in Chew Heong v. United States (1884), when immigration officials excluded former residents who could not obtain the required certificates because they were abroad when the act was passed. The Supreme Court ruled that a Chinese person could reenter without a certificate if he was a lawful resident at the time of the Burlingame Treaty revisions.
Subsequent legislation effectively nullified Chew Heong. The 1888 Scott Act (25 Stat. 476) prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country, including those with valid return certificates. This legislation was found constitutional in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, 1889). Chae Chan Ping had left for a trip to China in 1887 with a valid return certificate. The Scott Act, however, was passed while he was at sea, and he was denied entry upon landing. He argued that the Scott Act violated his right to reenter the United States.
The Supreme Court, however, declared that Congress, in exercising its sovereignty, could exclude noncitizens to protect the nation from dangerous foreigners. In the Court's view, exclusion of Chinese might be necessary for "the preservation of our civilization." Congress, by exercising its "plenary power" to regulate immigration, could determine whether a noncitizen could continue to live in the United States.
As a result of the Scott Act, an estimated 20,000 reentry certificates were voided and many individuals were barred from returning to their families and
Image Pop-UpWorkers help to construct an anti-Chinese wall in this lithograph from Puck magazine. The wall is built with prejudices against the Chinese, and is being held together with "congressional mortar." At the same time that America was blocking Chinese immigration, China was opening up to international trade, symbolized by the wall in the background being torn down.
Under immigration restrictions, women were defined by the status of their male spouses. As a result, spouses of laborers were categorically excluded from entering the country and women who were U.S. citizens married to Asians in the United States could lose their citizenship.
Passed in 1892 the Geary Act (27 Stat. 25) had three provisions: It (1) extended the ban on Chinese immigration for ten years; (2) created a presumption that persons of Chinese descent were residing in the United States unlawfully, thereby forcing any Chinese found in the country to prove his or her right to be here; and (3) required laborers to obtain a certificate confirming their legal status. In Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), the Court upheld the certificate requirement. Other noncitizens were not required to obtain a certificate. In 1902 and again in 1904, Congress extended these restrictions indefinitely.
Although most American immigrant populations increased over time the Chinese population in the U.S., as a result of the anti-Chinese laws, decreased from 100,000 in 1882 to about 85,000 in 1920. These figures also reflect the drastic imbalance in the ratio of Chinese males to females, as well as laws of various states that prevented family formation in early Chinese American communities.
The ban on Chinese immigration and naturalization was lifted in 1943, when Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws. Subsequently, the laws affecting those of other Asian racial groups were gradually relaxed. Naturalization (the process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens) was made entirely race-neutral in 1952. After a century of laws designed to restrict Asian immigration, the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the remaining racial classifications from the law, and since then Asians have immigrated to the United States in significant numbers.
See also: IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT; IMMIGRATION REFORM AND CONTROL ACT OF 1986.
Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Chin, Gabriel J. "The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law: A New Look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965." North Carolina Law Review 75 (1996): 27345.
Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Hill, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850990. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.