The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Many Americans on the West Coast attributed declining wages and economic ills to Chinese workers. Although the Chinese composed only 0.002 percent of the nation's population, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to placate worker demands and assuage concerns about maintaining white "racial purity."
Chinese Immigration in America
The Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) of the mid-nineteenth century between Great Britain and China left China heavily in debt. Additionally, floods and drought contributed to an exodus of peasants from their farms, and many left the country to find work. When gold was discovered in the Sacramento Valley of California in 1848, a large uptick in Chinese immigrants entered the United States to join the California Gold Rush.
Following an 1852 crop failure in China, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants came through the custom house in San Francisco (up from 2,716 the previous year) looking for work. Violence soon broke out between white miners and the new arrivals, much of it racially charged. In May 1852, California imposed a Foreign Miners License Tax of $3 month meant to target Chinese miners, and crime and violence escalated.
An 1854 California Supreme Court case, People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese, like Black Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court, making it effectively impossible for Chinese immigrants to seek justice against the mounting violence. By 1870, Chinese miners had paid $5 million to the state of California via the Foreign Miners License Tax, yet they faced continuing discrimination at work and in their camps.
Purpose of the Chinese Exclusion Act
Meant to curb the influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States—particularly California—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization.
President Chester A. Arthur signed it into law on May 6, 1882. Chinese-Americans already in the country challenged the constitutionality of the discriminatory acts, but their efforts failed.
Geary Act of 1892
Proposed by California congressman Thomas J. Geary, the Geary Act went into effect on May 5, 1892. It reinforced and extended the Chinese Exclusion Act’s ban on Chinese immigration for an additional ten years. It also required Chinese residents in the United States to carry special documentation—certificates of residence—from the Internal Revenue Service.
Immigrants who were caught not carrying the certificates were sentenced to hard labor and deportation, and bail was only an option if the accused were vouched for by a “credible white witness.”
China’s government protested these discriminatory laws, but with anti-immigrant sentiment at fever pitch in the United States, there was little they could do. Chinese Americans were finally allowed to testify in court after the 1882 trial of laborer Yee Shun, though it would take decades for the immigration ban to be lifted.
Impact of Chinese Exclusion Act
The Supreme Court upheld the Geary Act in Fong Yue Ting v. United States in 1893, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal. The legislation proved very effective, and the Chinese population in the United States sharply declined.
American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other "undesirable" groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians and the Japanese with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.
Chinese immigrants and their American-born families remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act. By then, the U.S. was embroiled in World War II and sought to improve relations with an important Asian ally.