James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

by James M. Lindsay
May 6, 2011

Composite of cartoons on Chinese immigrants in the United States; published 1880. (J. Keppler/courtesy the Library of Congress)

A composite of cartoons from the 1880s warning of the “dangers” that Chinese immigrants posed to the United States. (J. Keppler/courtesy the Library of Congress)

Immigration is a hot topic in America. That’s nothing new. We are a nation of immigrants that has been arguing for more than a century over who should be the next group to be allowed into the country and in what numbers. Regrettably, our immigration debates have not always shown America at its best. Racial and ethnic stereotypes frequently drive the discussion. A case in point came on May 6, 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The first Chinese immigrants started arriving in the United States in 1820. They came to escape poverty in China, and they took on low-skilled, low-paying jobs. Their numbers began swelling in the 1850s, first with the California Gold Rush and later with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. By 1880, there were 105,462 Chinese living in the United States out of a population of slightly more than 50 million.

Chinese laborers built the Central Pacific Railroad, which famously linked with the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869, allowing Americans for the first time to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail. But the growing number of Chinese and their “otherness” stoked nativist anger, especially in California. They endured blatant legal discrimination:

But California law discriminated against them . . . . They were not allowed to work on the “Mother Lode.” To work the “tailings” they had to pay a “miner’s tax,” a $4-per-head permissions tax plus a $2 water tax. In addition, the Chinese had to pay a personal tax, a hospital tax, a $2 school tax, and a property tax. But they could not go to public school, they were denied citizenship, they could not vote, nor could they testify in court.

These legal restrictions reflected nativist claims that:

the Chinese posed multiple threats. They came as servile “coolie” laborers who would take away the livelihood and destroy the dignity of white workingmen. They lived “huddled together…almost like rats” in pestilential ghettos, “Chinatowns” that endangered the health and welfare of the larger white community. Behind the apparently placid demeanor of these Orientals lurked the sexually demonic. The “Chinamen” not only drove their own women into prostitution but also sought to debauch vulnerable white women—or so it seemed in the sexual fantasy of their foes.”

Not surprisingly, the vitriol directed against Chinese immigrants often triggered mob violence that led to beatings, murders, and lynchings.

In 1882, Congress responded to nativist pressures by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the first significant legal restriction on immigration into the United States. It effectively barred all immigrants from China for ten years. It also prohibited federal or state courts from granting citizenship to Chinese living in the United States.

The act did nothing to change American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. Violence against them continued. In 1892, Congress passed legislation that barred Chinese immigration indefinitely. The law remained on the books until 1943, when the Magnuson Act repealed it.

Today there are slightly more than three-and-a-half million Chinese Americans. One of them is Gary Locke, a former Governor of Washington, Commerce Secretary, and soon-to-be our newest ambassador to China. Many of the proposals to fix America’s broken immigration system call for making it easier for Chinese students studying in the United States to stay and become citizens. Times change.

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