The Chinese Exclusion Act

Chinese miners in California, drawn in 1849

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The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first U.S. law to restrict the immigration of a specific ethnic group. Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, it was a response to a nativist backlash against Chinese immigration in the American West Coast. It was passed after a campaign against Chinese workers, which included violent assaults. A faction of American workers felt that the Chinese provided unfair competition, claiming they were brought into the country to provide cheap labor.

Chinese Workers Arrived During the Gold Rush

The discovery of gold in California in the late 1840s created a desire for workers who would perform grueling and often dangerous work for very low wages. Brokers working with mine operators began to bring Chinese laborers to California, and in the early 1850s, as many as 20,000 Chinese workers arrived each year.

By the 1860s, the Chinese population constituted a considerable number of workers in California. It was estimated that approximately 100,000 Chinese males were in California by 1880. American workers, many of them Irish immigrants, felt they were at an unfair disadvantage. Railroad construction was booming in the West, and the railroad business relied disproportionately on Chinese workers, who had earned a reputation for taking on harsh and difficult labor for minimal pay and in dismal conditions.

White laborers also targeted the Chinese for being far outside the mainstream of American society. They tended to live in enclaves which became known as Chinatowns, didn't often wear American clothing, and rarely learned English. They were seen as very different from European immigrants. and were generally mocked as inferior.

Hard Times Lead to Violence

Railroad companies, managed by whites, mistreated and openly discriminated against the Chinese in many ways, such as by not allowing them to attend the ceremony when the golden spike was driven to make the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Because they still relied on their cheap Chinese labor, however, the stiff competition for work created a tense and often violent situation.

A series of economic downturns in the 1870s led to an atmosphere wherein Chinese workers were blamed for the loss of work by those bitterly complaining and out of work white laborers from mostly immigrant backgrounds. Job losses and wage cuts accelerated persecution of Chinese workers by whites, and in 1871, a Los Angeles mob killed 19 Chinese people.

The collapse of a prominent New York City bank, Jay Cooke and Company, kicked off a financial crisis in 1873 that rippled through California and put an end to railroad construction. By the mid-1870s, many thousands of Chinese workers were suddenly idled. They sought other work, which only exacerbated racial tensions, leading to more incidents of mob violence throughout the 1870s.

Anti-Chinese Legislation Appeared in Congress

In 1877, an Irish-born businessman in San Francisco, Denis Kearney, formed the Workingman's Party of California. Though ostensibly a political party, similar to the Know-Nothing Party of earlier decades, it also functioned as a pressure group focused on anti-Chinese legislation. Kearney's group succeeded in attaining political power in California, and became an effective opposition party to the Republican Party. Making no secret of his racism, Kearney referred to Chinese laborers as "Asiatic pests."

In 1879, spurred on by activists such as Kearney, Congress passed the 15 Passenger Act. It would have limited Chinese immigration, but President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it. The objection Hayes voiced to the law was that it violated the 1868 Burlingame Treaty the U.S. had signed with China. So, in 1880, the U.S. negotiated a new treaty with China that allowed some immigration restrictions. New legislation, which became the Chinese Exclusion Act, was drafted.

The new law suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, and also made Chinese citizens ineligible to become American citizens. Though the law was challenged by Chinese workers, it was upheld and even renewed in 1892 and 1902, at which point the exclusion of Chinese immigration became indefinite. Ultimately, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place until 1943, when Congress finally repealed it at the height of World War II.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Batten, Donna, editor. “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2010, pp. 385-386.
  • Baker, Lawrence W., and James L. Outman, editors. “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library, 1st ed., vol. 5: Primary Sources, U-X-L, Gale, 2004, pp. 75-87.