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1943 – Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act

 FDR’s Letter to Congress and  the Citizens Committee

Following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, China became America’s ally. On Oct. 11, 1943 FDR urged Congress in a letter to correct the historic mistake: “Nations, like individuals, make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes of the past and to correct them. By the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Laws, we can correct a historic mistake and silence the distorted Japanese propaganda.”

Pearl Buck, a Nobel laurate in Literature, and her husband, James Walsh, a prominent New York publisher and their close friends mainly in the East Coast formed a Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion. With no member being Chinese, the committee played an instrumental role in lobbying broad support to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act is less than one year.

“The repeal of this act was a decision almost wholly grounded in the exigencies of World War II, as Japanese propaganda made repeated reference to Chinese exclusion from the United States in order to weaken the ties between the United States and its ally, the Republic of China” (U.S. State Department).

The Repeal of Historic Mistake

On December 17, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) signed the Magnuson Act, repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

Democratic U.S. Representative (later senator) Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) of Washington state submitted the bill. Throughout his 36-year career in Congress, Magnuson worked hard to improve relations with China, regardless of the political party in power.

The law permitted Chinese immigration for the first time since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It also allowed Chinese people already in the United States to become citizens for the first time since the Naturalization Act of 1790. However, in many states, Chinese Americans (mostly immigrants but sometimes U.S. citizens) were denied property-ownership rights either by law or de facto until the Magnuson Act itself was fully repealed in 1965.

The Quota of 105

However, the fears about a “floodtide” of Chinese immigrants mirroring the xenophobic arguments that had led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the first place remained. As a result, the Magnuson Act established a quota system that allowed only 105 entry visas per year for Chinese people from not only China, but also anywhere around the world, unlike European quotas based on country of citizenship.

The repeal act also opened the door in 1946 to legislation admitting Filipino and Indian immigrants in order to improve relations with the Philippines and India.

As imperfect as it was, today we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Magnuson Act because it was a significant first step in redressing the discriminative immigration policy that singled out first the Chinese, then later other Asians.

Chinese immigration later increased with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which abolished direct racial barriers, and later by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula.