Chinese first emigrated to the United States in large numbers in 1849, when they joined thousands of Americans and other foreign fortune-seekers in the ‘‘gold rush’’ to the American West. By 1852, there were approximately 25,000 Chinese in California. With the federal government’s blessing, more entered in the 1860s, when they provided cheap labor to complete the nation’s railroad system. By the time of the 1880 census, 105,465 Chinese were counted in the United States. Concentrated in the West, Chinese made up 8.7 percent of California’s population.
As the numbers of Chinese grew and labor needs subsided, the California legislature repeatedly tried to regulate their activities, as did some other Western states. Under California law, Chinese were subject to entry taxes and discriminatory regulation of their businesses, they were not allowed to vote or testify in court, and their children were prohibited from attending school with white children. Most of these state and local statutes were declared invalid by federal courts.
But beginning in the 1870s, California’s demand for restrictive legislation began to have a national impact. In an unprecedented series of laws in 1882, 1884, 1888, 1892, 1902, and 1904, Congress enacted the ‘‘Chinese exclusion laws,’’ designed to regulate, deter, and ultimately prevent, further Chinese immigration to the United States. The 1882 legislation imposed a ten-year suspension on immigration by Chinese laborers and restricted the ability of Chinese residing in the United States to re-enter after a trip abroad. These restrictions were refined and expanded in subsequent enactments. They quickly had the desired effect; in 1887, Chinese immigration fell to a low of ten admitted Chinese immigrants. However, these laws were not without controversy. With the case of Chae Chan Ping v. United States, the Chinese exclusion laws became the first federal immigration laws to be subject to judicial scrutiny.
Chae Chan Ping was a Chinese laborer who entered the United States in 1875. He lived in San Francisco for twelve years until 1887, when he left to visit relatives in China. Before departing, he obtained the ‘‘certificate of identity’’ required by the 1882 and 1884 acts that would permit him to re-enter the United States after his trip.
While Chae Chan Ping was in China, Congress enacted the 1888 Chinese exclusion law, called the Scott Act. Under the act, Congress suspended issuance of identity certificates, and specifically stated that no Chinese who had left the country would be permitted to re-enter, even if they held certificates that had been validly issued before the 1888 Act. Chae Chan Ping was stranded. He attempted to return to the United States less than a week after the 1888 Act came into effect, but he was denied readmission. He sued, claiming that the 1888 Act violated the Constitution and conflicted with treaties between the United States and China that provided for admission of Chinese laborers.
A unanimous Supreme Court upheld the 1888 Act. The Court treated the legislation with extreme deference, invoking the U. S. government’s inherent power to control its borders. According to the Court, despite Chae Chan Ping’s long-time residence in the United States, his government-issued identity certificate was revocable at any time. Furthermore, the Court opined, if China was concerned about United States’ compliance with treaty obligations, it could raise this directly with the political branches. Treaty enforcement was not an issue for judges.
After this decision, Congress further expanded Chinese exclusion laws with the Geary Act in 1892. The 1892 legislation extended suspension of immigration of Chinese laborers for another ten years. It also required that all Chinese laborers living in the United States obtain a certificate of residence from the commission of internal revenue. The certificate would be issued only with the support of an affidavit from a witness (presumably white) who attested to the alien’s residence. Without a certificate, the alien would be subject to deportation. Although this statute was challenged on numerous constitutional grounds, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1893 in the case of Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893). In 1902, Congress extended the suspension of Chinese immigration once again, this time with no termination date. And in 1904, in the Chinese Exclusion Extension Act, the exclusion provisions were made permanent and extended to citizens of the Philippines.
The Chinese exclusion laws and the cases challenging them have had a lasting impact on immigration law and on the experiences of Chinese in the United States. First, the Chinese exclusion cases established the principle of extreme judicial deference to congressional and executive authority over immigration—a principle that, while often challenged, has never been explicitly revoked. Second, the Chinese exclusion laws set the stage for later race- and ethnicity-based immigration restrictions—for example, the exclusion of Japanese and Koreans in the early 1900s—and even the Japanese internments of the 1940s. With the Chinese exclusion laws, the federal government began regulating who could be an ‘‘American,’’ with a significant impact on nonwhite residents and citizens. Third, the implementation of the Chinese exclusion acts served as a model for the identity inspections and documentation requirements that continue to proliferate at the U. S. border. Finally, the Chinese exclusion laws had a significant impact on Chinese families, forcing long (and often permanent) separations. Indeed, the exclusion of Chinese remained part of U. S. immigration policy until 1943 when, in an act of World War II diplomacy, the laws were repealed by the Magnuson Act and replaced with a strict entry quota for Chinese. Combined with earlier policies such as the Page Act that favored the migration of male laborers, these laws cast a long shadow on the experiences of Chinese Americans.
MARTHA F. DAVIS
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Due Process in Immigration; Noncitizens Civil Liberties; Race and Immigration; Sex and Immigration