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Chew Heong v. United States

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The following is a guest post by Caitlin Connelly, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the Master of Information program at Rutgers University. Caitlin previously wrote two blog posts on the Chinese Exclusion Act.

On September 22, 1884, a Chinese laborer named Chew Heong was returning from an extended trip overseas when he was detained aboard a ship in the port of San Francisco. Like thousands of Chinese immigrants in a similar position, he filed a writ of habeas corpus, claiming his detainment was illegal based on the 1880 Angell Treaty. His case would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. Although little known today, Chew Heong v. United States, 112 U.S. 536 (1884), struck a blow to the Chinese Exclusion Act, thereby protecting the rights of thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers.

The U.S. enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act (ch. 126, 22 Stat. 58) in 1882. This act implemented the Angell Treaty, which was signed in 1880 and ratified in 1881. The treaty permitted the U.S. to limit immigration from China with three significant conditions. First, such limitations would apply only to laborers, not other classes of immigrants. Second, the treaty stipulated that the U.S. could not permanently prohibit immigration, only suspend it temporarily. And third, any restrictions would not apply to the laborers already residing in the country.

The first page of a February 1877 cover of Harpers Weekly, with a black and white etching depicting Asian immigrants gathering at U.S. immigration, disembarking from a ship and crowding in a dark office.
Chinese immigrants at the San Francisco custom-house / P. Frenzeny. 1877. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

As laid out in the Supreme Court opinion’s statement of facts, Chew Heong belonged to that protected group of laborers who were not subject to the act’s restrictions, because he was already residing in the country. He had originally arrived in the U.S. sometime during the 1870s, and was known to be living in San Francisco on November 17, 1880, the day the treaty was signed. He resided there until June 18, 1881, when he departed for Honolulu, which was then part of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii. He remained in Hawaii for three years before his contentious effort to re-enter the country.

During those three years, Congress amended the Chinese Exclusion Act in an effort to close the loopholes that had made the law ineffective. In 1884, mere months before Chew Heong’s return, Congress amended the act (ch. 220, 23 Stat. 115) to require laborers exempt from exclusion to show a certificate of identity upon arriving at a U.S. port, or they would be denied entrance. Chew Heong, who had left the country before such certificates were ever necessary, did not have one.

The central question of the case was whether section 4 of the amended act, which stated that the certificate of identification “shall be the only evidence permissible to establish his right of re-entry,” applied to a laborer who was already living in the country on the day the Angell Treaty took effect. The treaty granted laborers the right to leave and enter the country at will, and the statute’s rigorous certificate stipulations appeared to violate the treaty’s provisions.

After losing his case in the Circuit Court for the District of California, Chew Heong appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court’s ruling in a 7-2 decision. Justice John Marshall Harlan authored the majority’s opinion.

A black-and-white image of the exterior of the Supreme Court, looking at the front entrance and exterior columns from the west side of the building, along First Street.
U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. Carol Highsmith, photographer. Between 1980 and 2006. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Harlan determined that treaties and acts of Congress are considered equal and one does not automatically supersede the other. Furthermore, the Court does not typically favor decisions based on repeal by implication. Consequently, the court could not assume that Congress had intended for the Chinese Exclusion Act to implicitly withdraw rights granted by the Angell Treaty less than one year after that treaty’s ratification. Harlan then noted that the amended 1884 act slightly altered the content required in the certificates, but had not invalidated the documents created by the 1882 act. Because immigrants with the older certificates still had the right to re-entry, he argued that Congress could not have intended to prohibit every immigrant who lacked the exact certificates required by the later act from entering.

Ultimately, the Court found that because Chew Heong had departed from the country before 1882, when the certificates were first produced, he could not have been reasonably expected to obtain a certificate, and, under the 1880 Angell Treaty, he had the right to leave and enter the country at will. Based on this analysis, the court found his detainment illegal.

Justice Stephen J. Field delivered one of two dissenting opinions. He posited that the treaty should apply only to laborers who had resided continuously in the U.S. By leaving to work in Hawaii for three years, Justice Field argued that Chew Heong had effectively given up his residence and any rights associated with it. More pressing, though, was the dissent’s note of caution about the intent of the amendment. For two years, California courts had been tied up by habeas corpus cases that allowed little else to get done. Congress passed the 1884 amendment, with its stringent re-entry requirement, in order to ease that bottleneck. Justice Field warned that the court’s decision in favor of Chew Heong would allow the flood of habeas corpus cases to carry on unabated.

Chew Heong is notable in large part because it was one of the few successful challenges to the Chinese Exclusion Act at the federal level. The Supreme Court dismissed a similar case in 1888 called Chae Chan Ping v. United States. Though the opinion in Chew Heong was a victory for laborers, the weakening of the Chinese Exclusion Act ultimately led to harsher measures. The 1888 Scott Act (ch. 1064, 25 Stat. 504) voided the certificates and prohibited any Chinese laborer from returning to the country after leaving for any reason. The following years saw additional efforts to broadly restrict Asian immigrants, such as the 1892 Geary Act (ch. 60, 27 Stat. 25) and the restrictive quota system of the Immigration Act of 1924 (ch. 190, 43 Stat. 153) to broadly restrict Asian immigration, which would not be eased until the 1960s.

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Comments (2)

  1. As an aspiring immigration attorney, i find this article to be a delightful read. It encompasses so many of the efforts and struggles that the Chinese community has had to endure throughout history. I find confidence in reading this that our judicial system still works as far as enacting and enforcing policy that is vital to our civilIzation.

  2. We celebrate.

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