An Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By 1943, Chinese immigrants had been barred from coming to the United States for more than sixty years. In 1882, the US Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first piece of legislation barring a group on the basis of ethnicity, acting on the nativism of much of the population of the West, where most Chinese immigrants had settled. However, with the beginning of World War II, China was needed as an ally against the Japanese, and keeping good relations took on an added significance. Japan had been using the American immigration law's provisions against the Chinese as a propaganda point, stressing the anti-Asian nativism that characterized such laws. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even personally lobbied Congress, urging them to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in order to reassure the Chinese that the United States considered them partners in the war effort, and that the expulsion of Japan from Manchuria, a part of China, was among the important aims of the war.

Summary Overview

By 1943, Chinese immigrants had been barred from coming to the United States for more than sixty years. In 1882, the US Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first piece of legislation barring a group on the basis of ethnicity, acting on the nativism of much of the population of the West, where most Chinese immigrants had settled. However, with the beginning of World War II, China was needed as an ally against the Japanese, and keeping good relations took on an added significance. Japan had been using the American immigration law's provisions against the Chinese as a propaganda point, stressing the anti-Asian nativism that characterized such laws. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even personally lobbied Congress, urging them to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in order to reassure the Chinese that the United States considered them partners in the war effort, and that the expulsion of Japan from Manchuria, a part of China, was among the important aims of the war.

Defining Moment

Chinese immigrants had been crucial to the development of the American West in the late nineteenth century, as the effort to construct the transcontinental railroad stalled until labor was brought in from Asia. Though they worked extremely hard for extremely low wages and suffered poor treatment by the Central Pacific Railroad, no thanks was forthcoming upon the accomplishment of the task. After the railroad was completed in 1869 and an economic depression set in during the following decade, Californians made it very clear that the Chinese were not welcome, and that they were seen as competition for jobs and resources. Mob violence broke out all along the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle, as white Americans called for the expulsion of the Chinese.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, on the grounds that any group endangering the peace of cities and towns in the United States should be banned from immigrating. It specified a ten-year period during which Chinese immigration would be strictly limited (effectively eliminated), and many Chinese already in the United States would be prevented from becoming citizens and would have to obtain certification to reenter the country if they left. The act was reauthorized for an additional ten years in 1892, and then made permanent in 1902.

By 1943, the ban on Chinese immigration to the United States had long been a point of contention in the relationship between America and China. Though the vast majority of Americans and their lawmakers did not want to see an increase in immigration from Asia, they did favor repeal as a measure of wartime expediency. However, there were still a number of loud voices calling out for the ban to continue. Though there were fewer than eighty thousand people of Chinese ancestry in the United States as of 1940, some lawmakers, such as Missouri congressman William P. Elmer and Louisiana congressman Asa Leonard Allen, spoke out against repeal, arguing that, though it would only permit about 105 Chinese immigrants per year, it might open a wedge that would allow a flood of immigrants from Asia.

Given the fact that the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act) was still on the books, however, Elmer and Allen needn't have been concerned, as it forbade the immigration of anyone ineligible for American citizenship, and this included the Chinese. However, calls began to come to include the Chinese in the annual quota system that governed immigration from all other countries, and this gave opponents pause. However, with President Roosevelt framing the issue not only as wartime expediency but also as one of a moral imperative to correct a wrong done some sixty years earlier, the measure won widespread support from most members of Congress.

Author Biography

Representative Warren G. Magnuson of Washington state sponsored the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, also known as the Magnuson Act. Magnuson was born in Moorhead, Minnesota, on April 12, 1905. He attended the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks and North Dakota State College, then moved to Washington to attend the University of Washington (UW). After graduating from UW in 1926 and earning his law degree there in 1929, he quickly found his way into public service. In addition to practicing law in Seattle, during the early 1930s he served as a special prosecutor in King County, as an assistant US district attorney, and as a member of the Washington State House of Representatives. He was elected to the US House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1936. In the early stages of World War II, he took a leave of absence from Congress to serve in the US Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. After President Roosevelt ordered all congressmen on active military duty back to Washington, DC, in 1942, Magnuson supported the war effort through legislation such as the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

On December 13, 1944, Magnuson resigned his seat in the House of Representatives when he was appointed to replace US senator Homer T. Bone, who had left to serve as a federal judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Magnuson was elected to the Senate in 1944 and won reelection five times. After Magnuson finally lost reelection to the Senate in 1980, he went back to practicing law. He died in Seattle on May 20, 1989.

Historical Document

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the following Acts or parts of Acts relating to the exclusion or deportation of persons of the Chinese race are hereby repealed:

May 6, 1882 (22 Stat. L. 58); July 5, 1884 (23 Stat. L. 115); September 13, 1888 (25 Stat. L. 476); October 1, 1888 (25 Stat. L. 504); May 5, 1892 (27 Stat. L. 25); November 3, 1893 (28 Stat. L. 7); that portion of section 1 of the Act of July 7, 1898 (30 Stat. L. 750, 751), which reads as follows:

“There shall be no further immigration of Chinese into the Hawaiian Islands except upon such conditions as are now or may hereafter be allowed by the laws of the United States; and no Chinese, by reason of anything herein contained, shall be allowed to enter the United States from the Hawaiian Islands.”; section 101 of the Act of April 30, 1900 (31 Stat. L. 141, 161); those portions of section 1 of the Act of June 6, 1900 (31 Stat. L. 588, 611), which read as follows: “And nothing in section four of the Act of August fifth, eighteen hundred and eighty-two (twenty-second Statutes at Large, page two hundred and twenty-five), shall be constructed to prevent the Secretary of the Treasury from hereafter detailing one officer employed in the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Acts for duty at the Treasury department at Washington…. and hereafter the Commissioner General of Immigration, in addition to his other duties, shall have charge of the administration of the Chinese exclusion law … , under the supervision and direction of the Secretary of the Treasury.”; March 3, 1901 (31 Stat. L. 1093); April 29, 1902 (32 Stat. L. 176); April 27, 1904 (33 Stat. L. 428); section 25 of the Act of March 3, 1911 (36 Stat. L. 1087, 1094); that portion of the Act of August 24, 1912 (37 Stat. L. 417, 476), which reads as follows:

“Provided, That all charges for maintenance or return of Chinese persons applying for admission to the United States shall hereafter be paid or reimbursed to the Unit ed States by the person, company, partnership, or corporation, bringing such Chinese to a port of the United States as applicants for admission.”; that portion of the Act of June 23, 1913 (38 Stat. L. 4, 65), which reads as follows: “Provided, That from and after July first, nineteen hundred and thirteen, all Chinese persons ordered deported under judicial writs shall be delivered by the marshal of the district or his deputy into the custody of any officer designated for that purpose by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, for conveyance to the frontier or seaboard for deportation in the same manner as aliens deported under the immigration laws.”

Sec. 2. With the exception of those coming under subsections (b), (d), (e), and (f) of section 4, Immigration Act of 1924 (43 Stat. 155; 44 Stat. 812; 45 Stat. 1009; 46 Stat. 854; 47 Stat. 656; 8 U.S.C. 2040, all Chinese persons entering the United States annually as immigrants shall be allocated to the quota for the Chinese computed under the provisions of section 11 of the said Act. A preference up to 75 per centum of the quota shall be given to Chinese born and resident in China.

Sec. 3. Section 303 of the Nationality Act of 1940, as amended (54 Stat. 1140; 8 U.S.C. 703), is hereby amended by striking out the word “and” before the word “descendants”, changing the colon after the word “Hemisphere” to a comma, and adding the following: “and Chinese persons or persons of Chinese descent”.

Approved December 17, 1943

Glossary

per centum: percent; Latin for per one hundred

quota: the share or proportional part of a total that is required from, or is due or belongs to, a particular district, person, or group

Document Analysis

The text of the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act was a compromise that allowed the United States to rid itself of an irritant in US-Chinese relations while still severely limiting the amount of immigration that would come from China. While some lawmakers worried about an influx of Chinese immigrants on the grounds that Chinese immigrants could come from a number of different points of origin, including Hong Kong, which was subject to the much larger and mostly unused British quota, the act made a change to the 1924 Immigration Act's quota system by stating that the miniscule quota of Chinese allowed to immigrate to the United States would not be applied on a national basis, as immigration quotas on all other nations were, but rather on the basis of ethnicity. Only about 105 ethnic Chinese immigrants would be allowed, regardless of the nation from which they emigrated.

The first section of the bill gives the specific dates of the Chinese Exclusion Acts that are to be repealed, and these include, among others, the original Chinese Exclusion Act (May 6, 1882); the Scott Act (September 13, 1888), which made it so that Chinese immigrants already in the United States could not reenter the country should they leave; and the Geary Act (May 5, 1892), which extended the provisions of the original Chinese Exclusion Act. Following this, the provisions of the original acts to be repealed were included in the record. The second section places Chinese people wishing to immigrate into the same status as immigrants from the rest of the world—subject to the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1924, and the quotas it instituted. Although all Chinese people, regardless of their country of origin, were to count against the quota, a preference of up to 75 percent of the quota was reserved for people born and living in China itself—clearly a gesture to the Chinese government. Finally, the third provision makes some changes to the language of the Nationality Act of 1940, making it clear that Chinese immigrants were now included under its provisions.

Though the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts did end the outright exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the United States, the rest of American immigration policy was exclusionary enough that placing the Chinese under its provisions was unlikely to impact the demographic makeup of the American public, appeasing the fears of immigration opponents.

Essential Themes

Judging by the contentious nature of the civil rights struggle that began in the decade following World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act may not have been passed in 1943 had it not been deemed necessary for the war effort to maintain good relations with China. As it was, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came out strongly in support of the measure, reflecting both the necessities of war and his own sense of justice based largely on his and his wife Eleanor's involvement with Progressive Era reforms. He called the original Chinese Exclusion Act a mistake. The original act was the first step in banning the immigration of all Asians, and its repeal was the first move portending an increasing liberalization in American immigration policy.

In the aftermath of the war, both the act's supporters and opponents were proven correct. The supporters claimed that the provisions were restrictive enough that only about 105 visas were going to be issued, based on the quotas outlined in the Immigration Act of 1924. For the foreseeable future, Chinese immigration was to remain a very small part of the total immigration to the United States. However, in the long run, the bill's opponents were right in their thought that the bill would give a foot in the door to Chinese and other Asian immigrants, and that the door would only open wider. In 1946, immigration restrictions on the Philippines and India were lifted, and all ethnically based bans on immigration were eliminated in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act), though like the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, other Asian immigrants were subject to very small quotas and were considered by racial heritage rather than national origin.

About two decades later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the quota system that had governed American immigration policy since 1924. Once it took effect in 1968, immigration from Asia in general increased dramatically. Chinese immigrants, mostly coming from Taiwan, as emigration from Communist China was very difficult, became an important part of the growing Asian American community in the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Austin, Allan W., and Huping Ling, eds. Asian American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Armonk: Sharpe, 2013. Digital file.
  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882. New York: Farrar, 2005. Print.
  • Lee, Erika. At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. Print.
  • Leong, Karen J. “Foreign Policy, National Identity, and Citizenship: The Roosevelt White House and the Expediency of Repeal.” Journal of American Ethnic History 22.4 (2003): 3–30. Print.
  • Wong, K. Scott. “The Opening of the Law in the Pursuit of Asian American History.” Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 13.2 (2010): 325+. Print.
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