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The Chinese Exclusion Act, Part 2 – The Legacy

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Connelly, an 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.

This post is a continuation of The Chinese Exclusion Act, Part 1 – The History.

By 1880, social tension and political pressure prompted the federal government to renegotiate its treaty with China. The resulting Angell Treaty opens by commenting upon the “constantly increasing immigration of Chinese laborers to the territory of the United States, and the embarrassments consequent upon such immigration.” (Immigration, Ta-Tsing Empire (China)-U.S, July 24, 1868. 49 U.S.T. 685) It scrapped the “open door” policy of the Burlingame-Seward Treaty and granted the U.S. the power to “regulate, limit, or suspend” the immigration of Chinese laborers who might enter the country after the signing of the treaty, but protected the right of those already in the country to freely travel to and from the U.S.

Based on the new immigration policies of the Angell Treaty, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58) in 1882. This legislation contained several significant provisions. First, it forbade the immigration of new Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years. It also required all Chinese subjects who were already in the country, regardless of their occupation, to obtain a certificate of identification if they planned to leave the U.S. and return at a later date. Finally, it barred Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, though the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark protected the birthright citizenship of their children.

Screenshot of scanned text from Statutes at Large, describing the suspension of Chinese immigration.

22 Stat. 58, Chap. 126.

Backed by the Chinese Consulate and the Six Companies, the Chinese-American community strongly opposed the Exclusion Act. Thousands of Chinese immigrants who were denied entry at port filed writs of habeas corpus claiming they were illegally detained and denied their right to travel, quickly overwhelming West Coast courts. These habeas corpus cases, like those of Chew Heong and Chae Chan Ping, exposed loopholes that allowed other types of evidence, such as oral testimony or written records, to be submitted in lieu of the certificates to prove residency.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended in 1884 (23 Stat. 115) with more stringent re-entry requirements in an effort to close those loopholes. In 1888, the Scott Act (25 Stat. 504) openly rejected the Angell Treaty’s guarantee of free travel. It nullified the identification certificates and declared that any Chinese laborer who left the U.S. for any reason would not be permitted to return.

Though commentators across the country would later call the Chinese Exclusion Act “practically a failure” and “entirely inadequate,” it did have a tangible impact on immigration (Los Angeles herald (Los Angeles, CA), 15 May 1890). Between 1860 and 1870, the Chinese population in the U.S. increased by almost 28,000 people, and over 42,000 arrived between 1870 and 1880. However, between 1880 and 1890, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Chinese population in the U.S. grew by just 1,852 people. By 1900, it had increased by 12,185, an 11% increase from the previous decade, but this figure includes native births and is still significantly lower than 20 years earlier.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act also inspired violence against Chinese immigrant communities. Though immigrants had faced brutality before, such as the 1871 Los Angeles Chinese Massacre, there was a significant increase in violent attacks in the 1880s and 1890s that now included attempts to force people out of their homes and off their lands. The two most notable incidents of this period were the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming and the 1887 Deep Creek or Hells Canyon Massacre in Oregon, but laborers were violently expelled from dozens of cities on the West Coast and elsewhere.

Color illustration depicting Uncle Sam and a personification of China listing the casualties of their respective citizens.

Figure 4: Opper, Frederick Burr, Artist. Keeping account / F. Opper. China United States, 1885. N.Y. Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.28126.

The Chinese Exclusion Act’s suspension of the immigration of laborers was eventually made indefinite (32 Stat. 176). Although the act was repealed in 1943 (57 Stat. 600), this move had little actual impact as the Immigration Act of 1924 (43 Stat. 153) had effectively barred all Asian immigration. Even after the act’s repeal, only 105 visas were issued to Chinese citizens each year (in contrast, Italy got 3,845 visas, Great Britain had 34,007, and Germany over 50,000). In 1965, a new Immigration and Nationality Act radically revised the nation’s immigration system, bringing Chinese Exclusion to an end.

The effects of sixty years of Chinese Exclusion have persisted long after its repeal in 1943. Many of the cultural and political factors that led to its enactment have modern day parallels. Moreover, legal cases involving the Act continue to influence immigration policy. Reviewing the Chinese Exclusion Act and related legislation sheds light on an often-overlooked period of American history and brings to light the struggles of an important community in the United States. Stay tuned for the upcoming Story Map that will provide an interactive exploration of this information!


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