The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law passed on May 6, 1882, following revisions made in 1880 to the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. Those revisions allowed the U.S. to suspend immigration, and Congress subsequently acted quickly to implement the suspension of Chinese immigration, a ban that lasted well over 60 years.
The Chinese came to America in large numbers during the 1849 California Gold Rush and in the 1860s when the Central Pacific Railroad recruited large labor gangs to build its portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Large-scale immigration continued into the late 1800s, with 123,201 Chinese recorded as arriving between 1871 and 1880, and 61,711 arriving between 1881 and 1890.
At first, when surface gold was plentiful, and many Americans were already there, the Chinese were mistreated and not well-received. As gold became harder to find and competition increased, animosity to the Chinese and other foreigners increased. After being forcibly driven from the mines, most Chinese settled in enclaves in cities, mainly San Francisco, and took up low end wage labor such as restaurant work and laundry. With the post Civil War economy in decline by the 1870s, anti-Chinese animosity became politicized by labor leader Dennis Kearney and his Workingman's Party as well as by California Governor John Bigler, both of whom blamed Chinese "coolies" for depressed wage levels. Another significant anti-Chinese group organized in California during this same era was the Supreme Order of Caucasians with some 64 chapters statewide.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant restriction on free immigration in U.S. history. The Act excluded Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the country for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. The few Chinese non-laborers who wished to immigrate had to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate, which tended to be difficult to prove.
The Act also affected Chinese who were already in the United States. Any Chinese who left the United States had to obtain certifications for reentry, and the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens by excluding them from U.S. citizenship. After the Act's passage, Chinese men in the U.S. had little chance of ever reuniting with their wives, or of starting families in their new home.
Amendments made in 1884 tightened the provisions that allowed previous immigrants to leave and return, and clarified that the law applied to ethnic Chinese regardless of their country of origin. The Act was renewed for ten years by the 1892 Geary Act, and again with no terminal date in 1902. The Act's 1902 extension also required "each Chinese resident to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Without a certificate, he or she faced deportation."
One of the critics of the Chinese Exclusion Act was the anti-slavery/anti-imperialist Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts who described the Act as "nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination.
The laws were driven largely by racial concerns; immigration of persons of other races was unlimited during this period.
On the other hand, many people strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, including the Knights of Labor, a labor union which called for improved conditions for workers, who supported it because it knew that industrialists were using Chinese workers as a wedge to keep wages low and conditions poor. Among labor and leftist organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World were the sole exception to this pattern. The IWW openly opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act from its inception in 1905.
For all practical purposes, the Exclusion Act, along with the restrictions that followed it, froze the Chinese community in place in 1882, and prevented it from growing and assimilating into U.S. society as European immigrant groups did. However, limited immigration from China did still occur until Angel Island Immigration Station on what is now Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay served as the processing center for most of the 56,113 Chinese immigrants who are recorded as immigrating or returning from China; upwards of 30% more who showed up were returned to China. Furthermore, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed City Hall and the Hall of Records, many immigrants (known as "paper sons") falsely claimed familial ties to resident Chinese-American citizens which could not be disproved.
Later, the Immigration Act of 1924 would restrict immigration even further, excluding all classes of Chinese trictions to other Asian immigrant groups. Until these restrictions were relaxed in the middle of the twentieth century, Chinese immigrants were forced to live a life apart, and to build a society in which they could survive on their own.
Even today, although all its constituent sections have long been repealed, Chapter 7 of Title 8 of the United States Code is headed, "Exclusion of Chinese. It is the only chapter of the 15 chapters in Title 8 (Aliens and Nationality) that is completely focused on a specific nationality or ethnic group.