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CEAP Commentary
06 May 1882: The US President signs the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting immigration from China

  Femy Francis
Research Assistant at NIAS

On 06 May 1882, the US President Chester A. Authur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act was the first of its kind law that restricted immigration based specifically on nationality. Since the initiation of the law, the act imposed a 10-year conditional ban on Chinese immigrants who came to the US as labourers. 

The act placed new requirements on Chinese immigrants leaving and re-entering the US to obtain certification, though most were refused entry even with all proper documents. Additionally, they were refused the right to naturalization as US citizens. This act also outlined exceptions for a few non-labourer Chinese immigrants, such as diplomats, who can enter with proper certification by the Chinese government, while most found it hard to prove the authenticity of their documents and were often refused.

The extension in 1888 and 1892
Subsequently, in 1888, the US made the above law even stricter altogether, banning the re-entering of Chinese immigrants after visiting China; this left many Chinese families torn and separated under the Scott Act. 

After the completion of 10 years, the act was extended by another 10 years under the Geary Act of 1892. Under the act, the immigrants who were residents of the US were required to prove their right to be present and were asked to carry a “Certificate of Residency” or face deportation. The anti-immigration policies saw more changes in the years ahead with the Johnson-Reed Act/The Immigration Act of 1924 which determined how many immigrants could enter according to the 1890 census. In the 20th century, the American government focused more on the adoption of regulation methods and quota systems to decide the immigration flow.

From Welcome to Exclusion: A brief note on the Chinese immigrants in the US
The Chinese immigrants were not always considered threatening. When they arrived the first time in the US, during the California Gold Rush of 1849 as labourers, they were welcomed and were in high demand due to their work ethics. The population of Chinese immigrants increased due to the friendly Burlingame Treaty of 1868.  In 1860, there were 35,565 Chinese immigrants in the US, and by 1880, there were 105,613. Soon Chinatowns started establishing where they had their own business and created a self-sustaining ecosystem of their own.

The Burlingame Treaty of 1868, gave US access to Chinese immigrants to work on their mines and railroads in turn the US granted rights of free immigration between the countries, an “open door policy” of its time. The treaty protected the commercial trade conducted in Chinese ports and even promised protection to Chinese citizens in the US as part of the favoured nation principle. Additionally, the treaty gave China some protection from the involvement of external influence in their internal matters. The success of the Treaty was short-lived as the Chinese communities and workers established themselves, and the anti-Chinese sentiments grew.

The Chinese immigrants soon faced racial prejudice and even pay discrimination. The employers used the Chinese Labourers to pull down the wages creating feelings of animosity among White labourers. The immigrants faced violent crimes committed from robbery to murder. Their self-sufficient towns were taken as an isolation tactic, and their refusal to assimilate with the rest of America. In the Chew Heong Vs United States court hearing Justice J Field said: “They do not and will not assimilate with our people, and their dying wish is that their bodies may be taken to China for burial.”

Anti-Chinese unions propped up like the Knights of Labour and the Democratic Congressional representative who often stated the economic issues are because of the Chinese immigrant's presence in the US. The narratives are similar to what we hear today, the immigrants were blamed for increasing competition and taking away jobs and opportunities from the White man. Leader of California Workingmen Party Dennis Kearney said: “California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American and are prepared to make it so.” As the economic and cultural concerns grew, the government renegotiated the friendly Burlingame Treaty to the Angell Treaty of 1880. The latter regulated the flow of Chinese immigrants, paving the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

From 1943 to 2024: Since the abolition of the Chinese Exclusion Act
With the US joining World War II and the Pearl Harbour attack, China officially became a member of the Allied Powers. Chinese affiliation with the US made sense as it had been at war with Japan since the 1930s, but the Exclusion Act made the alliance problematic as the alliance would require migration for war efforts. Therefore, the act was abolished, though open immigration of any nationality was not allowed, and a quota system was instated for 105 annual immigration.

On 17 December 2023 US President Joe Biden celebrated the 80th anniversary of the abolitions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and said: “For generations, people of Chinese heritage have enriched our country – from Chinese labourers who did backbreaking work to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s to the Chinese Americans who serve in our military, to the authors, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and scholars of today. We honour them, and all immigrants, who continue to make extraordinary contributions to our nation.”

The Immigration policy since 1882 saw many changes where the quota system was removed and the new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed immigration based on skill and family relations. Though the effects of the past lingered heavily, the concept of “nativism” never left. Separating themselves from the “other” and who has the right to stay in America. The immigration policy is a major topic for political parties participating in the Presidential elections. Where even today sizeable number of Americans see the immigrants present in the US as threatening and unfair. According to TRAC data in the first quarter of 2024, the court has ordered 140,644 deportation orders. More than a century later America, the land of immigrants still debates on the rights of other immigrants to stay.

Today Chinese Diaspora are one of the largest groups in America who are active members of society. The diaspora consists of 5.4 million people according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 report. They are the ninth largest in the country and have established a sizeable influence in the community. While most immigration is through legal routes Mexico has become a popular destination for Chinese immigrants to come to America. In 2023 37,000 Chinese migrants were detained at the US southwestern border as the economic conditions back home deteriorated.

The Chinese Exclusion Act,” The Bill of Rights Institute
Growing ‘Chinese exclusion’ sentiment risks turning US into an extremist country,” Global Times, 18 December 2023
Bailey Desimone, “
The Chinese Exclusion Act, Part 1 – The History,” Library of Congress Blogs, 13 May 2022
Chinese Exclusion Act (1882),” Milestone Documents
Statement From President Joe Biden On The 80th Anniversary Of The Repeal Of The Chinese Exclusion Act,” US Embassy & Consulate in China, 19 December 2023
Owen Rust, “
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: Racism on a Federal Level,” The Collector, 03 April 2024

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