The Chinese Exclusion Act 1882
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major immigration restriction in the United States. Many Americans on the West Coast blamed Chinese laborers for their low incomes and economic woes. Despite the fact that Chinese people made up only.002% of the population, Congress approved the exclusion legislation to appease labor demands and alleviate widespread worries about protecting white “racial purity.”
Chinese Immigration in America
The mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars between Great Britain and China (1839-42, 1856-60) left China in debt. Floods and droughts forced peasants to abandon their crops, and many fled the nation in search of work. When gold was found in California’s Sacramento Valley in 1848, a massive influx of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States to participate in the California Gold Rush.
Following a harvest collapse in China in 1852, more than 20,000 Chinese immigrants sought work at San Francisco’s customs house (up from 2,716 the previous year). Violence erupted quickly between white miners and the newcomers, much of it ethnically motivated. California implemented a $3 monthly Foreign Miners Tax in May 1852, targeting Chinese miners, and crime and violence increased.
People v. Hall, an 1854 Supreme Court case, declared that Chinese immigrants, like African Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court, essentially making it difficult for Chinese immigrants to seek justice in the face of rising violence. Despite paying $5 million to the state of California through the Foreign Miners Tax by 1870, Chinese miners continued to experience prejudice at work and in their camps.
Purpose of The Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, enacted to reduce the flood of Chinese immigrants to the United States, notably in California, halted Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed it into law. The validity of the discriminatory measures was challenged by Chinese-Americans already in the nation, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Geary Act of 1892
The Geary Act, proposed by California congressman Thomas J. Geary, took effect on May 5, 1892. It reaffirmed and prolonged for another ten years the Chinese Exclusion Act’s restriction on Chinese immigration. It also required Chinese citizens in the United States to carry additional documents from the Internal Revenue Service, such as residency certificates. Immigrants caught without the credentials faced hard labor and deportation, with bail only available if the accused could be backed up by a “reliable white witness.”
After the 1882 trial of worker Yee Shun, Chinese Americans were first allowed to testify in court, though the immigration prohibition would remain in place for decades.
Impact of Chinese Exclusion Act
The Geary Act was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Fong Yue Ting v. United States in 1893, and Chinese immigration became permanently barred in 1902. The legislation was quite successful, and the Chinese population in the United States decreased dramatically.
With the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924, further initiatives for immigration limitation against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and Japanese were sparked by the American experience with Chinese exclusion. Until 1943, when the Magnuson Act was passed, Chinese immigrants and their American-born families were ineligible for citizenship. The United States was engulfed in World War II at the time, and it was trying to boost morale at home.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
—Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883)
Equal Protection Rights (1886);
The Emergency Quota Act (1921);
The Displaced Persons Act (1948).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)