Enacted by U.S. Congress, May 6, 1882
Reprinted from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History
The United States begins a ban on Chinese immigrants
"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…."
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred any more Chinese workers from coming to the United States for ten years, the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted for sixty years. It was the first time the United States had enacted a law aimed at a specific national or ethnic group.
For much of the 1870s, the United States experienced difficult economic times. Jobs were hard to find. Many businesses failed as a result of a financial crisis that started in New York on September 18, 1873. On that day, a major bank in New York City, Jay Cooke and Company, closed its doors. The bank declared bankruptcy, meaning it could not afford to give depositors their money back. Railroads that had borrowed money from the bank to expand their network of tracks were unable to repay their loans. Consequently, the bank did not have money to give depositors making withdrawals. People with money deposited in other banks, fearing they might also lose their money, rushed to withdraw their deposits. Without money on hand to turn over to depositors, other banks also closed their doors. (In the 1870s, there was no government guarantee of deposits, as there is today.) The result was widespread panic by depositors, which led to several years of slow economic growth, as banks were unable to lend money to businesses to expand.
The effects of the economic slowdown were especially severe on the West Coast, where three railroad routes from the east to the west (a northern route ending in Washington; the middle route through Sacramento, California; and a southern route to Los Angeles) had been recently completed. Railroad construction workers, both Chinese and European American, were no longer needed and consequently became unemployed. Some unemployed workers blamed Chinese immigrants for their economic plight, on grounds that Chinese workers had taken jobs that might otherwise have been available to European American workers. In reality, the Chinese were blamed for an economic crisis caused by overly enthusiastic expansion by the railroads, over which Chinese immigrants had no control or responsibility.
The economic slowdown also changed the perceptions of many politicians toward Chinese immigration. In the 1850s and 1860s, Chinese workers had established a reputation as reliable, hard workers. They were credited with much of the dangerous, backbreaking work involved in building the Central Pacific railroad through the steep California Sierra Nevada mountains. The important role of Chinese laborers was recognized by the government in 1868, a year before the first railroad link between California and the East Coast was completed, when the United States signed the Burlingame Treaty with China. The treaty specifically protected the right of the Chinese to immigrate into the United States.
Attitudes toward Chinese workers were not universally positive, however, even before the economic crisis of 1873. Chinese immigrants tended to associate exclusively with each other. They had little interaction with European American workers. Some Europeans, such as miners and explosives experts from Wales, felt that Chinese workers competed with them for the same jobs and that the Chinese held down wages by their willingness to work for lower wages. At the celebrations in Utah marking completion of the transcontinental railroad (the railroad across the continent) in 1869, Chinese workers were excluded. This exclusion can be seen as
a symbol of an already well-established discrimination against Chinese people.
As economic hard times dragged on in the 1870s, some workers in California increasingly focused their anger and despair on immigrants from China. In the summer of 1877, a mob of European Americans in San Francisco attacked and killed Chinese workers and wrecked Chinese-owned laundries. That summer, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney (1847–1907), who owned a small hauling company, became the leader of a local association of workers called the Workingmen's Party. The organization was initially formed to protest a lack of jobs and to support a strike (a work stoppage aimed at gaining better pay and benefits) by railroad workers. But, as noted in The American Commonwealth, in fiery speeches to disenchanted workers, Kearney cast blame on Chinese workers (whom he sometimes called "Asiatic pests") for keeping wages low and making jobs scarce. He gave speeches that several times ended with the crowd turning into a mob and rampaging through San Francisco's Chinatown. Kearney was arrested several times, accused of urging a crowd to violence, but juries repeatedly found him not guilty.
Kearney's political influence grew, and in 1879, voters in San Francisco elected one of Kearney's followers, the Reverend Isaac Kalloch (1832–1887), as mayor. The Workingman's Party spread to other parts of California. The party replaced the Democratic Party as the chief challenger to the Republican Party, which controlled the state government. (Political parties are organizations of like-minded people who organize to get sympathetic politicians elected to office.)
Faced with growing unrest, California politicians in Washington urged the U.S. Congress to pass legislation banning more Chinese from entering the United States. The Congress passed such a law in 1879, which in effect blamed the victims of riots for causing disorder. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) vetoed the act, or refused to sign it into law, on grounds that it violated an 1868 treaty with China guaranteeing the right of Chinese to enter the United States as immigrants.
In 1880, faced with continuing anti-Chinese violence in California that the U.S. government seemed helpless or unwilling to prevent, the government of China agreed to modify the earlier treaty and allow the United States to suspend immigration of Chinese workers. In May 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The act had five main provisions: (1) Chinese workers were barred from coming to the United States for ten years; (2) Chinese workers already in the United States were allowed to stay, and those who had been in the United States before the act was passed were allowed to return after a short absence; (3) Chinese workers who were in the United States illegally could be deported; (4) Chinese were barred from becoming naturalized citizens, or those who gain the rights of people who were born in the United States, such as the right to vote; and (5) some Chinese, such as students and merchants, could visit the United States temporarily. The act also made captains of ships pay fines if they helped Chinese immigrate illegally to the United States.
large role in passage of the law. The Chinese were viewed as being fundamentally different than Europeans and as somehow inferior. They were not Christians, for example, which most European Americans had in common. Instead of letters, the Chinese language used characters (drawings that stood for whole words), which were unreadable to non-Chinese. Chinese immigrants tended to wear traditional Chinese costumes and to wear their hair in long braids; their appearance emphasized the difference between Chinese and Europeans in general. Most Chinese immigrants lived together in Chinatowns, where they regulated their own business and social affairs through associations apart from government institutions.
Things to remember while reading the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882:
- In its preamble, or introduction, the act declared that it was the opinion of the government that "the coming of Chinese laborer … endangers the good order of certain localities…." This phrase refers to the riots in California directed against Chinese immigrants. Instead of focusing on controlling the riots, Congress decided it would be easier to ban any more Chinese from coming to the United States.
- The number of Chinese who had immigrated to the United States by 1882 was relatively small, compared with other national groups. The 1880 census counted only about one hundred thousand Chinese in the United States. Most lived in their own communities, usually called Chinatowns. Many Chinese immigrants maintained the clothing and customs of their native land. They seemed strange and separate from European Americans—and therefore were an easy target for politicians looking for someone to blame for economic hard times.
- One of the qualities that made many employers eager to hire Chinese workers for work in mines, construction projects, and in some factory jobs—their willingness to work hard for low wages—aroused the anger of European workers, who thought the Chinese were responsible for keeping wages low and jobs scarce.
Forty-Seventh Congress. Session I. 1882. Chapter 126.-An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese
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,
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and 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 after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.
Sec. 2. That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port of place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and may be also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.
Sec. 3. That the two foregoing sections shall not apply to Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and who shall produce to such master before going on board such vessel, and shall produce to the collector of the port in the United States at which such vessel shall arrive, the evidence hereinafter in this act required of his being one of the laborers in this section mentioned; nor shall the two foregoing sections apply to the case of any master whose vessel, being bound to a port not within the United States by reason of being in distress or in stress of weather, or touching at any port of the United States on its voyage to any foreign port of place: Provided, That all Chinese laborers brought on such vessel shall depart with the vessel on leaving port.
Sec. 4. That for the purpose of properly [identifying] Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and in order to furnish them with the proper evidence of their right to go from and come to the United States of their free will and accord, as provided by the treaty between the United States and China dated November seventeenth, eighteen hundred and eighty, the collector of customs of the district from which any such Chinese laborer shall depart from the United States shall, in person or by deputy, go on board each vessel having on board any such Chinese laborer and cleared or about to sail from his district for a foreign port, and on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall be entered in registry-books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the [identification] of each of such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the custom-house; and every such Chinese laborer so departing from the United States shall be entitled to, and shall receive, free of any charge or cost upon application therefor, from the collector or his deputy, at the time such list is taken, a certificate, signed by the collector or his deputy and attested by his seal of office, in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, which certificate shall contain a statement of the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, personal description, and fact of identification of the Chinese laborer to whom the certificate is issued, corresponding with the said list and registry in all particulars. In case any Chinese laborer after having received such certificate shall leave such vessel before her departure he shall deliver his certificate to the master of the vessel, and if such Chinese laborer shall fail to return to such vessel before her departure from port the certificate shall be delivered by the master to the collector of customs for cancellation. The certificate herein provided for shall entitle the Chinese laborer to whom the same is issued to return to and re-enter the United States upon producing and delivering the same to the collector of customs of the district at which such Chinese laborer shall seek to re-enter; and upon delivery of such certificate by such Chinese laborer to the collector of customs at the time of re-entry in the United States, said collector shall cause the same to be filed in the custom house and duly canceled.
Sec. 5. That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land, shall have the right to demand and receive, free of charge or cost, a certificate of [identification] similar to that provided for in section four of this act to be issued to such Chinese laborers as may desire to leave the United States by water; and it is hereby made the duty of the collector of customs of the district next adjoining the foreign country to which said Chinese laborer desires to go to issue such certificate, free of charge or cost, upon application by such Chinese laborer, and to enter the same upon registry-books to be kept by him for the purpose, as provided for in section four of this act.
Sec. 6. That in order to the faithful execution of articles one and two of the treaty in this act before mentioned, every Chinese person other than a laborer who may be entitled by said treaty and this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall be identified as so entitled by the Chinese Government in each case, such identity to be evidenced by a certificate issued under the authority of said government,
Sec. 7. That any person who shall knowingly and falsely alter or substitute any name for the name written in such certificate or forge any such certificate, or knowingly utter any forged or fraudulent certificate, or falsely personate any person named in any such certificate, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor; and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned in a penitentiary for a term of not more than five years.
Sec. 8. That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report of the entry of vessel pursuant to the law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers, deliver and report to the collector of customs of the district in which such vessels shall have arrived a separate list of all Chinese passengers taken on board his vessel at any foreign port or place, and all such passengers on board the vessel at that time. Such list shall show the names of such passengers (and if accredited officers of the Chinese Government traveling on the business of that government, or their servants, with a note of such facts), and the name and other particulars, as shown by their respective certificates; and such list shall be sworn to by the master in the manner required by law in relation to the manifest of the cargo. Any willful refusal or neglect of any such master to comply with the provisions of this section shall incur the same penalties and forfeiture as are provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of cargo.
Sec. 9. That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passengers, comparing the certificates with the list and with the passengers; and no passenger shall be allowed to land in the United States from such vessel in violation of law.
Sec. 10. That every vessel whose master shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed forfeited to the United States, and shall be liable to seizure and condemnation on any district of the United States into which such vessel may enter or in which she may be found.
Sec. 11. That any person who shall knowingly bring into or cause to be brought into the United States by land, or who shall knowingly aid or abet the same, or aid or abet the landing in the United States from any vessel of any Chinese person not lawfully entitled to enter the United States, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.
Sec. 12. That no Chinese person shall be permitted to enter the United States by land without producing to the proper officer of customs the certificate in this act required of Chinese persons seeking to land from a vessel. And any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.
Sec. 13. That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and household servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons.
Sec. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.
Sec. 15. That the words "Chinese laborers," whenever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.
Approved, May 6, 1882.
What happened next …
The Chinese Exclusion Act immediately reduced the number of Chinese immigrants from around forty thousand in 1881 to less than a thousand in the year after the act was passed. One impact was to create an oddly imbalanced society in Chinese neighborhoods, where men outnumbered women by a ratio of about twenty to one. Because Chinese men who had come to work were no longer able to bring wives into the United States, many Chinatown communities continued for many years with men living as permanent bachelors. Forty years later, in 1920, the ratio of men to women in Chinese communities was still about seven to one.
In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, which excluded Chinese immigrants for ten more years. In 1902, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants was made permanent. Chinese residents were required to obtain special certificates; without one, any Chinese found in the United States could be deported to China.
In 1942, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants had become an embarrassment. The United States had entered World War II (1941–45) against Japan after the Japanese navy bombed the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. China had been invaded by Japan a few years earlier, and consequently the United States and China became allies. The United States had to correct the uncomfortable situation of having an ally whose citizens were the subject of discrimination in immigration. On December 17, 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws. In their place, Congress set a numerical quota on Chinese immigrants, just as other countries had been assigned numerical quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States. The spirit of the old laws, remained, however: The quota for Chinese was set at just 105 people per year.
Finally, in 1965, explicit discrimination against Chinese immigrants was lifted. A new immigration law got rid of numerical quotas and concentrated on other standards for acceptance, such as family ties or a person having skills judged to be in short supply in the United States.
Did you know …
- The treatment of Chinese immigrants was the subject of intense diplomacy between the United States and China for many years, with the Chinese government taking an active interest in the fate of citizens who had emigrated to the United States.
- In 1868, the United States and China signed a treaty governing Chinese immigration. The treaty was called the Burlingame Treaty. It was named after Anson Burlingame (1820–1870), one of the diplomats who negotiated the agreement. A native of Berlin, New York, Burlingame was a congressman from 1855 to 1861, when he was appointed to represent the United States in China. His tact and understanding of Chinese issues was appreciated by the Chinese government. In 1867, he was named to represent China in a mission that included visits to several European countries and the United States.
- In 1868, Burlingame represented China in negotiations for a treaty with the United States. One clause of the treaty protected the right of Chinese to immigrate to the United States and assured that China would not be treated differently than other countries with respect to immigration. The treaty was effective for a decade, but in the late 1870s, anti-Chinese feelings ran so strong in California that the Congress tried to exclude Chinese immigrants altogether. China finally consented, in 1880, to modify the Burlingame Treaty, paving the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
For More Information
Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. London and New York: Macmillan, 1889. Multiple reprints.
Chin, Ko-lin. Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
Lee, Erika. At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
LeMay, Michael, and Elliot Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
"Asian American History Timeline." Ancestors in the Americas: A PBS Series Exploring the History and Legacy of Asians in the Americas. http://www.cetel.org/timeline.html#1 (accessed on February 21, 2004).