This law and later federal labor legislation targeting immigrants prohibited American employers from recruiting and importing foreign laborers by promising them jobs on arrival in America. The law targeted primarily Chinese immigrants on the East and West coasts who worked for lower wages than those demanded by unionized American citizens.
During the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of laborers were brought into the United States to work mines in the California gold rush, help build the first transcontinental railroad, and work in other expanding industries. A large portion of the imported workers with limited skills were Chinese and Irish immigrants, who worked more cheaply than native-born Americans. California’s gold rush was mostly played out by the 1860’s, and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
As the need for cheap labor in the United States diminished, the federal government began enacting laws to discourage the importation of more foreign laborers, particularly from Asia. The
Enacted by Congress in 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law had two purposes: to promote the unionization of skilled laborers through groups such as the Order of the
After the Contract Labor Law was passed, the federal government lacked the resources to enforce it tightly. In 1888 and 1891, it was amended to include provisions for government inspections of ships carrying immigrants and for investigations of illegal employment contracts. The law effectively prevented small and midsize American employers from contracting with immigrants, but the full effect of the law on immigration is not known. Awareness of the limited effectiveness of the law created an impetus for the federal government to create the Bureau of Immigration in 1891.
Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Steinfeld, Robert J. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Alien land laws
Contract labor system
Immigration Act of 1882
Immigration Act of 1891
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.