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1882 – The Chinese Exclusion Act

The Growing Anti-Chinese Sentiment

Following the Panic of 1873, America entered into the Long Depression (1873 to 1896). As a result, resentment towards Chinese workers gradually emanated from divisive labor practices used by big industrial businesses. Chinese workers were exploited as cheap labor and at the same time demonized as stealing jobs from white workers. 

The growing anti-Chinese sentiment triggered more and more violence as well as various policies targeting Chinese migrants, finally resulting in the first and only federal law that proscribed entry of one specific ethnic group on the racist premise that it endangered the good order the United States. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act

On May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A Arthur, prohibiting immigration of all Chinese laborers for 10 years. The Library of Congress calls it the “first significant restriction on free immigration in U.S. history.”  The Geary Act extended and strengthened such ban in 1892 for another 10 years before making it permanent in 1902.

The Chinese Exclusion Act also made it very difficult for non-laborers (such as merchants, teachers, students, travelers, and diplomats) to obtain entry to the United States because the law defined laborers as “skilled and unskilled.” In addition, for the Chinese residents already in the United States, if they left the country, they had to obtain certifications to re-enter. Furthermore, the law denied citizenship to Chinese resident aliens, who were subject to deportation by court orders.

Sen. George Frisbie Hoar (R-Mass.) was the only member of the US Congress who voted against the CEA. Sen. Hoar denounced the law as “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination.” Federick Douglass also spoke out against Chinese Exclusion. 

On May 13, 1889 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Chae Chan Ping v. U.S., better known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, that the government could invoke national security to justify racist legislation, “the government of the United States … considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security, their exclusion is not to be stayed.

The Total Ban and Decline

In 1904, Congress permanently extended, without modification, limitation, or condition, the prohibition on Chinese naturalization and immigration.

The exclusion laws had dramatic impacts on Chinese immigrants and communities. They significantly decreased the number of Chinese immigrants into the United States and forbade those who left to return. According to the U.S. national census in 1880, there were 105,465 Chinese in the United States, compared with 89,863 by 1900 and 61,639 by 1920. Chinese immigrants were placed under a tremendous amount of government scrutiny and were often denied entry into the country on any possible grounds.

The Consequences and Legacies 

The 1882 Act was only one of a broader series of racist legislation, known as the Chinese Exclusion laws, enacted between 1870 and 1904. This period was marked not only by discrimination and exclusion of Chinese workers, but also by numerous violence against them. In the Tacoma riot of 1885, the entire Chinese population was violently expelled; in the Rock Springs massacre of 1885, 28 Chinese coal miners were killed; in the Snake River massacre of 1887, 31 Chinese miners were killed; many other attacks on Chinese immigrants took place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and so on.

The Chinese-exclusion laws were subsequently extended to people from the Philippines, India, and Japan, lumping different national-origin groups into a single racial category, the ‘Asiatic’. Indeed, an entire ‘barred Asiatic zone’ was established in 1917,

Furthermore, numerous states passed so-called Alien Land Laws between the 1880s and 1920s to bar Asian people from owning land: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The legacies of these racial discrimination and exclusion sanctioned by federal governments were long lasting, and negatively impacted Chinese/Asian communities and families for generations in the North America. 

 The Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada  

Over 15,000 Chinese laborers first came to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century to assist in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Once the railway was complete, the government of the day set in place a number of measures to stop the flow of immigrants from China to Canada.

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 imposed a Head Tax of $50 (equivalent $1576 in Jul. 2023) on Chinese newcomers. The Government subsequently raised this amount to $100 in 1900, and then to $500 in 1903 (equivalent $17,369 in Jul. 2023). This tax remained in place until July 1, 1923, when the Government amended the Chinese Immigration Act and effectively banned most Chinese immigrants to Canada until 1947. From 1923 to 1947, when the act was finally repealed, less than 15 Chinese migrants entered the country.