The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted Chinese immigration and set the tone for US immigration policy for approximately the next sixty years. In the American West from the 1860s through the 1890s, Chinese Americans were wrongly accused of causing the economic downturn of the frontier and depressed wages. The act, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, was a response to economic fears and ethnic prejudice. Stating in its preamble that “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof,” the act was the first to specifically target an ethnic group's immigration into the United States. Designed to last only ten years, the act was later extended in 1892 by the Geary Act and indefinitely in 1902.
Whereas previous legislation had limited entry into the country of Chinese laborers (specifically targeted at restricting immigration to California after the Gold Rush), the Exclusion Act targeted the entire ethnic group. This act worked in concert with the 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China, requiring potential immigrants to acquire certification from the Chinese government stating that they were not mere laborers but had specific skills to offer the country. The Chinese government had difficulties fulfilling this requirement, which was subject to intense scrutiny by immigration officials. As a result, numerous individuals were denied entry into the United States. Those found to have entered unlawfully were subject to imprisonment at hard labor followed by deportation.
The 1892 Geary Act extended the moratorium on Chinese immigration for ten years and placed additional restrictions on persons of Chinese descent living in the United States. The act required Chinese people to obtain and carry papers with them at all times—a kind of internal passport. In 1902 Congress passed an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act that made its provisions— and those of Geary—permanent. The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 by the Magnuson Act.
Chinese immigrants attempted to address the most onerous aspects of the exclusion policy in the courts. Wong Wing v. United States, 163 U.S. 228 (1896), concerned a Chinese man charged with illegally entering the country and sentenced by a commissioner of the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to sixty days of hard labor and subsequent deportation. The Supreme Court deemed that a penalty of hard labor was an “infamous punishment” that required a judicial trial to establish the guilt of the accused. The accused thus were entitled to the protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution. The parts of the act requiring hard labor were struck down as unconstitutional.
In Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889), commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, the Supreme Court asserted the plenary power principle and upheld the racially motivated Chinese Exclusion Act. The plenary power principle asserts that matters of immigration and naturalization are unqualified powers of Congress and beyond the scope of judicial scrutiny.
United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898), concerned a man born in 1871 to Chinese parents in San Francisco who was denied reentry into the United States after traveling abroad. Ark claimed that he was a US citizen and thus that the Chinese Exclusion Act did not apply to him. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Horace Gray wrote an extensive argument in favor of Wong Kim Ark. “A child born in the United States,” he stated, “of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicile and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, becomes at the time of his birth a citizen of the United States” (169 U.S. at 649).
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 paved the way for other racially motivated immigration acts such as the National Origins Act of 1924. Current immigration policy is under the auspices of the Immigration Act of 1990, an updating of the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA). The current law establishes a worldwide cap that allows a “flexible” number of immigrant visas based on the needs of families, employment, and diversity, setting a cap on immigrants from individual countries at 7 percent of the total immigrants for any given year.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is a sad reminder of two dangers of democratic governance. Majorities can trammel the rights of the minority, and public opinion finds it difficult to overcome its past mistakes.
SEE ALSO Federal Powers: Immigration and Naturalization; Immigration and Nationality Act and Amendments; Racism; United States v. Wong Kim Ark.