In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese workers from entering the U.S. as well as banning those Chinese immigrants who were already here from obtaining citizenship. It is the first and perhaps only piece of legislation to come out of Congress addressed solely against a single nationality.
The move was driven by public opinion on the West Coast. Much of that opinion centered around economic issues, fear of Chinese immigrants taking American jobs or driving down wages because of their willingness to work for less. But there was also a nastier nativist element railing against people who weren’t white, weren’t Christian and who had a culture that was strange to the American West.
The Chinese first began to emigrate to the U.S. during the California gold rush of the 1840’s and 1850’s. Others came to work on the transcontinental railroad. They worked in mines, textile factories and on farms.
As early as 1858 the California legislature passed a law prohibiting any person of “Chinese or Mongolian races” from entering the state, but that law was struck down by the state supreme court.
The U.S. economy declined after the Civil War. The Panic of 1873 and the accompanying bank failures signaled the start of what came to be known as the Long Depression which lasted for the next decade and ratcheted up resentment of Chinese immigrants in the West.
In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, named after the California congressman who sponsored the legislation. The Page Act sought to circumvent a treaty with China that banned restrictions on immigration by focusing on criminals, contract laborers known as coolies and Chinese prostitutes. The enforcement of the Page Act, however, was primarily focused on women and its effect was to mostly restrict immigration by Asian women.
Another California congressman, Sen. John Miller introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act in Congress. His first effort would have banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 20 years. President Arthur vetoed that bill and Congress did not have enough votes to override as there was opposition to this in other parts of the country. Miller came back with another bill that banned Chinese immigrants for 10 years. Arthur accepted the compromise and signed.
During the floor debate on the bill, Miller made this extraordinary statement: “If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people, with their peculiar civilization, until they form a considerable part of our population, what is to be the effect upon the American people and Anglo-Saxon civilization?”
A look at California newspapers in the early 1880’s shows how public opinion had turned against the Chinese. The Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel of April 10, 1880, offered up some vaguely defined poll results: “…the people of this State were recently requested, by a statute law, to express their opinions upon the main question by ballot. The response was general; and when the ballots were counted, there were found to 883 votes for Chinese immigration, and 154,638 against it.”
The Petaluma (Calif.) Courier on Dec. 16, 1885, offered this rationale for why the Chinese were being singled out: “The great difference between Chinese and immigrants from European countries is that while the former make all they can out of the country, and take it even with their bones back to China, the latter assimilate with us and invest all they make here.”
The Pacific Bee of Sacramento on Nov. 8, 1885, expanded that economic argument, but added a racist conclusion: “Nearly all of the money these Asiatics earn goes back with them to China, and while they remain here almost all their trade is with Chinese merchants. It is a moderate estimate that each Chinaman withdraws $200 a year from circulation in this country. On the basis of the census that would give the enormous total of $15,000,000 taken out of California every year by these aliens…
“Facts and figures such as we have here presented show what a terrible drain the Chinese are upon this State. If, instead of the 75,000 parasitic Asiatics in California, there were that number of sober, intelligent and industrious white men added to the population, what a vast improvement would be observed.”
The view from the other coast was a bit different. The New York Times of April 6, 1880, suggested: “Never in the history of this country has so much been made from so little as in the case of the Chinese in the United States. It is a pitiable thing that it has been thought necessary, for the protection of hundreds of thousands of stalwart and intelligent American citizens against a handful of foreigners, that the whole power of the National Government should be invoked.”
The impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act on the population of Chinese immigrants in America was substantial. The Chinese population in the U.S. declined from approximately 105,000 in 1880 to 89,000 in 1900 to 61,000 in 1920.
While the act was supposed to have a life span of 10 years, it was renewed for another 10 by the Geary Act. After 10 more years, in 1902, it was made permanent. The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in force for 61 years until 1943 and was likely repealed then only because China was an ally of the U.S. in World War II. The Magnuson Act of 1943 permitted a grand total of 105 Chinese to enter the country per year.
As you read this story and see the comments made you can’t help but see distant echoes of the Asian hatred that spread through this country during the past two years.