Chinese Exclusion Act

Illustration of Chinese miners in California
Chinese miners in California. Getty Images

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first United States law to restrict 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 to the American West Coast.

The law 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 need for workers who would perform grueling and often dangerous work for 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.

A series of economic downturns in the 1870s created an atmosphere in which Chinese workers were blamed for the loss of work by white, generally immigrant, laborers. A financial crisis that began in 1873 with the collapse of a prominent New York City bank, Jay Cooke and Company, rippled through the economy and hit California.

Up to that point, railroad construction had been booming in the West.

In the railroad business, Chinese workers had earned a reputation for taking on difficult and often very dangerous labor. The railroad companies openly discriminated against the Chinese in some ways, such as not allowing them to attend the ceremony when the golden spike was driven to make the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

But the railroads relied on Chinese labor.

The banking collapse in the east put an end to railroad construction in California, and in the mid-1870s many thousands of Chinese workers were suddenly idled. As they sought other work, white workers began to bitterly complain that they were taking their jobs.

Hard Times Led to Violence

With competition for work, the situation became tense and often violent. American workers, many of them Irish immigrants, felt they were at an unfair disadvantage as the Chinese were willing to work for very low pay in dismal conditions.

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

Economic downturns in the 1870s led to job losses and wage cuts. White workers blamed the Chinese and persecution of Chinese workers accelerated.

A mob in Los Angeles killed 19 Chinese in 1871. Other incidents of mob violence occurred throughout the 1870s.

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 an effective pressure group focused on anti-Chinese legislation. Kearney's group succeeded in attaining political power in California, and began to be considered the real opposition party to the Republican Party. Making no secret of his racism, Kearney referred to Chinese laborers as "Asiatic pests."

Anti-Chinese Legislation Appeared in Congress

In 1879 the U.S. Congress, spurred on by activists such as Kearney, passed a law known as 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 United States had signed with China.

In 1880 the United States negotiated a new treaty with China that would allow some immigration restrictions.

And 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. The law was challenged by Chinese workers, but was held to be valid. And it was renewed in 1892, and again in 1902, when the exclusion of Chinese immigration was made indefinite.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed by Congress in 1943, at the height of World War II.

Sources:

"Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2010, pp. 385-386. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

"Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882." U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library, edited by Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 5: Primary Sources, UXL, 2004, pp. 75-87. Gale Virtual Reference Library.