Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked the first time that the United States legislated to block immigration by a specific ethnic or racial group. The law ushered in a new period of American history that was defined by skepticism and occasional hostility toward immigration, especially by immigrants of a non-European race.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the United States for a period of ten years. It also banned Chinese immigrants who were already in the United States from becoming U.S. citizens. The legislation permitted a few groups of Chinese to immigrate, but it was aimed primarily at unskilled laborers. An additional provision of the law led to the first significant deportation of a particular group of immigrants. It was the first time that the United States outlawed immigration on the basis of ethnicity.[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[cat]LAWS;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[00980][cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[00980][cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[00980][cat]DEPORTATION;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882[00980]

Historical Background

Anti-Chinese sentiment emerged in the western part of the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of Chinese workers arrived to work on the railroads and mines. As the nation expanded west, Americans tended to justify their annexations of Native American and formerly Mexican lands by citing the presumed inferiority of nonwhite peoples. Their negative views of Chinese were similar to their perceptions of Native Americans and Mexicans. The difference was that Chinese were recent immigrants.

Most Chinese immigrants to the United States during the 1850’s were laborers. Initially, they worked in gold mines, agriculture, laundries, and the Textile industry;Chinese immigrantstextile industry and Chinese immigrants;railroad workersplayed a major role in the construction of western railroads. However, as their numbers increased, a white backlash arose, especially among other American laborers. Not only were the numbers of Chinese immigrants considered threatening, but they also worked harder than most American laborers and for less money. As a result, pressure mounted on the federal government to reduce immigration from China.

The arguments against Chinese immigration had both economic and social components. The rhetoric of supporters of restricting immigration often stressed the need to help American workers keep their jobs. They argued that immigrants would compete for jobs in the United States with those already in the country. Furthermore, opposition to immigration emphasized negative cultural traits as well. Americans spread rumors that Chinese immigrants gambled and smoked opium. Related to this, many opponents of Chinese immigration stated they were a threat to American moral standards. This situation was exacerbated due to their reputation for living in close-knit communities and attempting to preserve their cultural identity.

The opposition to Chinese immigration became very intense. Other Americans committed violence against them. Some of the worst incidents occurred in Los Angeles in 1870, San Francisco in 1877, Denver in 1880, and WyomingWyoming Territory in 1885. In the latter case, an estimated twenty-five Chinese were killed by gunshot or by being burned to death. Furthermore, local courts declined to punish those responsible for the violence.

As a result of popular opposition to Chinese, elected officials began to act. The initial governmental action taken against the Chinese in the United States was at the state level. California adopted seveal laws that targeted Chinese immigrants. These state laws included such provisions as mandating special licenses for Chinese-owned enterprises and prohibiting the naturalization of Chinese immigrants.

Domestic opposition to Chinese immigration made U.S. relations with China more complex. China’s government was concerned about anti-Chinese sentiment among Americans and California’s discriminatory laws. As a result, the United States and China agreed to two treaties during this period that partially addressed Chinese immigration to the United States. The federal government annulled many of California’s discriminatory laws with the [a]Burlingame Treaty of 1868Burlingame Treaty of 1868, an agreement with China that essentially permitted unrestricted immigration to the United States. However, as domestic opposition to Chinese immigration continued to grow in the United States, the American government persuaded China to accept some restrictions on Chinese immigrants to the United States in the [a]Angell Treaty of 1880Angell Treaty of 1880.

Chinese Exclusion Act and Its Aftermath

Domestic pressure to restrict Chinese immigration did not abate, so the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which became law on May 6, 1882. In addition to prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers, the new law made it more difficult for immigrants who had already come to the United States to reenter the country after they revisited China. As a result of the law, the number of Chinese in the United States dropped significantly. The number of Chinese in the United States reached its nineteenth century peak at 107,488 in 1890. That number fell to 88,863 in 1900. No Chinese immigrants at all were admitted into the United States in 1892.

Thomas Nast cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly in March, 1882, suggesting that the racially discriminatory principle behind the Chinese Exclusion Act might next be applied to Irish immigrants.

(Library of Congress)

Restrictions on Chinese immigration became a long-standing U.S. policy. In 1888, the [a]Scott Act of 1888Scott Act forbade Chinese laborers who revisited China from reentering the United States, even if they held official documents permitting their return. In 1892, the [a]Geary Act of 1892Geary Act renewed the ban on Chinese immigration for ten more years. In 1902, the ban on Chinese immigration was extended indefinitely. Not surprisingly, these U.S. actions increased friction with China. Restrictions on Chinese immigration were not lifted until passage of the [a]Immigration Act of 1943Immigration Act of 1943 (also known as the Magnuson Act).

Passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 led to other attempts at immigration restrictions based on ethnicity. The law also led to the creation of a national immigrant inspection system. Furthermore, this piece of legislation led to the U.S. government’s initial efforts to accumulate information regarding the movements of immigrants. The act signaled the emergence of a new era in U.S. history that was defined by skepticism and sometimes hostility toward immigration, especially by those of a different race.[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Further Reading
  • Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Collection of articles examining both restrictions placed on Chinese and the contributions they have made to the United States.
  • Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980. Historical overview of Chinese immigration to the United States and their changing socioeconomic conditions.
  • Chua, Lee-Beng. Psycho-social Adaption and the Meaning of Achievement for Chinese Immigrants. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2002. Addresses the social conditions and development of an ethnic identity for Chinese Americans.
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Detailed account of the legal obstacles to Chinese immigration, as well as a rich description of conditions confronting Chinese in the United States while the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act were in force.
  • Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. China and the Overseas Chinese in the United States, 1868-1911. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1983. Analysis of the relationship between U.S. policy toward Chinese immigration and Sino-American relations.

Alien land laws

Angell Treaty of 1880

Anti-Chinese movement

Asiatic Barred Zone

Chae Chan Ping v. United States

Chinese Exclusion Cases

Chinese immigrants

Congress, U.S.

Geary Act of 1892

Immigration Act of 1882

Page Law of 1875

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