For decades prior to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, large numbers of Chinese immigrants had been working in the American economy. Most of them were concentrated in California, where they provided cheap labor for factories and railroads. As the Californian economy was, for many years, chronically short of labor, Chinese immigration was welcomed as a way of meeting a social need.
Over time, however, a growing number of Americans came to resent the presence of Chinese immigrants. Racist sentiments towards those of a different race and culture were widespread, as was the belief that Chinese laborers undercut the wages of white workers. Resentment was also generated by the use of Chinese laborers as strike-breakers, as they were during the Beaver Falls Cutlery Company industrial dispute in Pennsylvania.
In response to a rising tide of anti-immigration rhetoric, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited all Chinese immigration into the United States for a period of ten years. Chinese workers already living in the United States were caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either they could stay in the country alone or go back to China and reunite with their families but not be able to return.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed by the Geary Act of 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It would be another forty-one years before Chinese immigrants would be allowed into the United States again and even then only in very small numbers.