Background of The U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act

Immigration Watch Canada provides our latest bulletin: general background material on the 1882 U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act. Note that the American law, like the Canadian law which followed in 1923, was directed against Chinese labourers, not all Chinese. The purpose of both the American and Canadian laws was to end the arrival of new waves of Chinese labourers and to slowly terminate through attrition the unfair advantages these labourers had in the work place.

The background should provide more perspective on the Canadian Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws.

Chinese Exclusion Act (United States)

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The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law passed on May 6, 1882, following 1880 revisions to the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. Those revisions allowed the U.S. to suspend immigration, and Congress subsequently acted quickly to implement the suspension of Chinese immigration.

The act excluded all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States for 10 years. Amendments made in 1884 tightened the provisions that allowed previous immigrants to leave and return, and clarified that the law applied to ethnic Chinese regardless of their country of origin. The act was renewed in 1892 by the Geary Act for another 10 years, and in 1902 with no terminal date. It was repealed by the 1943 Magnuson Act, allowing a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year, although large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

The act was passed in response to the large number of Chinese who had immigrated to the Western United States as a result of unsettled conditions in China and the availability of jobs working on railroads. Most came on five year labor contracts. It was the first immigration law passed in the United States targeted at a specific ethnic group.

Although the law has long been repealed, it was around long enough to be made part of the United States Code. Even today, although all its constituent sections have long been repealed, Chapter 7 of Title 8 of the U.S.C. is headed, “Exclusion of Chinese.” It is the only chapter of the 15 chapters in Title 8 (Aliens and Nationality) that is completely focused on a specific nationality or ethnic group.

The United States was not the only country to have racially restrictive immigration policies. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand also had similar policies. See the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, the White Australia policy, and the New Zealand head tax.

Chinese came to America in large numbers as individual miners during the 1849 California Gold Rush with 41,400 being recorded as arriving from 1851-1860. Again in the 1860s when the Central Pacific Railroad recruited large labor gangs, many on five year contracts, to build its portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese laborers worked out well and thousands more were recruited until the railroad's completion in 1869. Chinese labor provided the massive labor needed to build the majority of the Central Pacific's difficult railroad tracks through the Sierra Nevada mountains and across Nevada. In the decade 1861-70 64,301 are recorded as arriving, followed by 123,201 in 1871-80 and 61,711 in 1881-1890. Most came from Southern China looking for a better life; escaping a high rate of poverty left after the Taiping Rebellion. This immigration may have been as high as 90% male as most immigrated with the thought of returning home to start a new life. How many of them returned on the expiration of their labor contracts is unknown. The biggest problem the highly male dominated communities that stayed in America faced was the lack of suitable Chinese brides which were not allowed to emigrate in significant numbers after 1872 and the mostly bachelor communities slowly aged in place with very low Chinese birth rates.

At first, when surface gold was plentiful, the Chinese were well tolerated and well-received. As the easy gold dwindled and competition for it intensified, animosity to the Chinese and other foreigners increased. Organized labor groups demanded that California's gold was only for Americans, and began to physically threaten foreigners' mines or gold diggings. Most, after being forcibly driven from the mines, settled in Chinese enclaves in cities, mainly San Francisco, and took up low end wage labor such as restaurant work and laundry. A few settled in towns throughout the west. With the post Civil War economy in decline by the 1870s, anti-Chinese animosity became politicized by labor leader Dennis Kearney and his Workingman's Party as well as by Governor John Bigler, both of whom blamed Chinese “coolies” for depressed wage levels.

Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 there continued to be some Chinese immigration before its repeal in 1943. From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station on what is now Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay served as the processing center for most of the 56,113 Chinese immigrants who are recorded as immigrating or returning from China; upwards of 30% more who showed up were returned to China.