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The Chinese Exclusion Act

The influx of Chinese immigrant workers to the United States that followed the gold rush provided cheap labor for miners and railroad builders. It was also beneficial in that these immigrants did not appear to be a drain on any of the government infrastructure programs. These immigrants were predominantly made up of healthy adult males. But the presence of these immigrants attracted resentment from those who felt threatened due to lost jobs and a lowering of general wages. This led to violence against the immigrants in cities such as Los Angeles.

In 1878 Congress decided to respond to the protest from non-immigrants. Legislation excluding the Chinese was passed by Congress that year, but was vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes vetoed the bill, because it amounted to the country refusing to live up to its obligations under the Burlingame Treaty, which permitted unrestricted Chinese immigration.



The veto was supported by eastern moderates, but Hayes was bitterly denounced in the West. Democrats in the House of Representatives attempted to impeach him, but narrowly failed when Republicans prevented a quorum by refusing to vote. After the veto, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward suggested that both countries work together to reduce immigration. He led negotiations with the Chinese to accomplish this.

In 1879, California adopted a new Constitution, which explicitly authorized the state government to determine which individuals were allowed to reside in the state, and banned the Chinese from employment by corporations and state, county or municipal governments. This law was held to be unconstitutional because immigration was considered to be a matter of federal jurisdiction.

In 1882, after China had agreed to treaty revisions, Congress tried again to exclude Chinese immigrants. Senator John F. Miller of California introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act. This bill denied Chinese immigrants United States citizenship and banned their immigration for a twenty-year period. The bill passed the Senate and House by overwhelming margins. But President Chester Alan Arthur vetoed this bill. Arthur's reason for the veto was that the 20-year ban was a breach of the renegotiated treaty of 1880. That treaty allowed only a "reasonable" suspension of immigration. As had been the case with Hayes, eastern newspapers and moderates praised Arthur for the veto, while he was condemned for it in the Western states. Congress was unable to override the veto.

Congress then passed a new bill, one which reduced the immigration ban to ten years. Arthur objected to this denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants. Ultimately however, he viewed the reduced immigration ban to be a compromise measure that he would have to live with and he signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law on May 6, 1882. The Act excluded Chinese laborers, meaning "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining," from entering the country for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.

The Chinese Exclusion Act required those few Chinese non-laborers who sought entry to the country to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to emigrate. However, in practice, this group still found it difficult to prove that they were not laborers. The 1882 act defined a category of persons known as "excludables" as “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” Thus very few Chinese could enter the country under the 1882 law. Diplomatic officials and other officers on business, along with their house servants, for the Chinese government were allowed entry as long as they had the proper certification verifying their credentials.

The Act also affected the Chinese who had already settled in the United States. Any Chinese person who left the United States had to obtain certifications for reentry, and the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens by excluding them from U.S. citizenship. After the Act's passage, Chinese men in the U.S. had little chance of ever reuniting with their wives, or of starting families in the United States.

Amendments made in 1884 tightened the provisions that allowed previous immigrants to leave and return. The amendments made this more difficult. They also made it clear that the law applied to all Chinese persons regardless of their country of origin. Then, in 1888, the Scott Act expanded upon the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all reentry for Chinese persons after leaving the U.S.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Scott Act were challenged as being unconstitutional, but both were upheld by the Supreme Court in Chae Chan Ping v. United States, an 1889 decision of the Court. The court held that "the power of exclusion of foreigners [is] an incident of sovereignty belonging to the government of the United States as a part of those sovereign powers delegated by the constitution."

The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed for ten years in 1892 by the Geary Act. It was extended in 1902 and required "each Chinese resident to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Without a certificate, he or she faced deportation."

Between 1882 and 1905, about 10,000 Chinese appealed against negative immigration decisions to federal court. Congress responded by barring these petitions by an act that passed Congress in 1894 and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. vs Lem Moon Sing (1895).

A vocal critic of the Chinese Exclusion Act was Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts who described the Act as "nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination." The laws did appear to be motivated by racial concerns, as there was no other restrictions on immigration of persons of other races during this period. Nevertheless there was significant public support for the law, especially from a labor group known as the Knights of Labor, who believed that industrialists were using Chinese workers as a tool to keep wages low. Among labor organizations, only the Industrial Workers of the World were openly opposed to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In 1891 the Government of China refused to accept the U.S. Senator Henry W. Blair as U.S. Minister to China due to his abusive remarks regarding China during negotiation of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

This law froze the size of the Chinese community until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act gave rise to the first significant incidences of commercial human smuggling. It also affected Canada's immigration policies Pressure from the U.S. government caused Canada to pass its own Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 which banned most forms of immigration by the Chinese to Canada. Conversely, Chinese immigration to Mexico was welcomed because the Chinese immigrants filled Mexico's labor needs. The Chinese Exclusion Act actually led to heightened Chinese immigration to Mexico.

The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration for other Asian immigrant groups. These restrictions forced Chinese immigrants into a life of seclusion and to the creation of ethnic enclaves known in many cities as "Chinatowns".



The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the 1943 Magnuson Act, during a time when China became an ally of the U.S. against Japan in World War II. The Magnuson Act permitted Chinese nationals already residing in the country to become naturalized citizens. The Magnuson Act only allowed a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year, and did not repeal the restrictions on immigration from the other Asian countries. Large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

On June 18, 2012, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution, introduced by Congresswoman Judy Chu, to formally expresses the regret of the House of Representatives for the Chinese Exclusion Act. The resolution was approved by the U.S. Senate in October 2011.
Tags: chester alan arthur, immigration, labor, rutherford b. hayes
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