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Chinese Exclusion Act

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The Chinese Exclusion Act was a law passed by the United States Congress in 1882 in response to nativist demands; it prevented the large scale immigration of Chinese workers into America although tens of thousands came in illegally. Restriction was repealed in 1943 and amnesty was provided for the illegals in the 1950s


Fewer than 50 Chinese immigrated to the U.S. before 1850. With the discovery of gold in 1849 tens of thousands of people raced to California. The Chinese first came as miners, then as railroad workers constructing the transcontinental line, which was finished in 1869. Before restrictions began in 1883, 290,000 Chinese--almost all men--entered the U.S., usually through San Francisco. The goal was to acquire money and return home, and 147,000 left before 1883. The exclusion only applied to unskilled workers. Merchants, students and "paper sons" continued to arrive officially, and totaled 57,000 from 1884 to 1916. Another 17,000 or so were smuggled in.[1]


Another 40,000 went to Hawaii, an independent country that joined the U.S. in 1898. The exclusion now applied to Hawaii but it was not retroactive. In 1900 there were 26,000 Chinese residing in Hawaii and they had full U.S. citizenship. They were welcomed into Hawaiian society, assimilated rapidly, led all ethnic groups in school attendance; 32% lived in Honolulu, where many became businessmen, entrepreneurs, managers, teachers and professionals. Others were farmers, but their children usually moved to the city. Chinese were allowed to own land in Hawaii (unlike the mainland) and (unlike the mainland) often married outside the ethnic group, especially Chinese immigrant men and native Hawaiian women.[2]


The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the U.S. and China facilitated the immigration of tens of thousands of Chinese men; very few women came. But the completion of the transcontinental railways brought more white laborers to the West, and they strenuously complained of "Oriental" competition, involving "coolies" trapped into indentured labor (a form of semi-slavery)[3], unskilled workers paid very low wages and a population impossible to assimilate into American society or political culture. Other complaints centered on the tongs that controlled every aspect of Chinese life in America,, and the opium dens.

In 1877, when 9% of California's state's population was Chinese, the violent agitation for exclusion was led by Denis Kearney, Irish-born leader of the Workingmen's party. Violence throughout the west in the 1870s forced the Chinese into a small number of cities, where they formed exclusive districts called Chinatowns, that were virtually self-governing. Since very few women were involved, the immigrant population--which had arrived as young men in the 1860s--gradually aged and died out.

Exclusion, 1882

In 1877 a committee of the U.S. Senate reported in favor of modification of the Burlingame Treaty, and in 1879 Congress passed the "Fifteen Passenger Act," restricting Chinese immigration; however it was vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as a violation of the treaty. In November 1880, a commission headed by James B. Angell signed a treaty with China permitting restrictions upon the immigration of laborers but exempting teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years. The Scott Act of 1888 and the Geary Act of 1892 contained flagrant violations of the treaty of 1880, partly induced by the failure of China to ratify the Bayard Treaty of 1888, sanctioning a prohibition of immigration of laborers for twenty years. A new treaty with China, in 1894, permitted for ten years the absolute prohibition of the entrance of Chinese laborers into the United States. The act of 1902 renewed this prohibition, which continued until 1943. Strong support for exclusion came from labor unions, especially the American Federation of Labor headed by Samuel Gompers.

Paper sons

Although Congress ruled that no Asian immigrant could become a naturalized citizen (until 1952), the Supreme Court ruled that every person born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen and entitled to leave and re-enter the country at will.[4] To replenish the Chinatown population Chinese merchants brought in thousands of Chinese "paper sons" on fraudulent certificates that said they were born in America.[5] Immigration officials knew that most were fakes and questioned the applicants closely, but they had been thoroughly rehearsed and had prepared false genealogies and even village maps and local details that stymied the immigration examiners.[6] Smuggling rings brought in additional 17,000 across the Canadian and Mexican borders. The U.S. government strengthened its border control procedures to little avail.[7]

In 1904 the Chinese government refused to renew the treaty of 1894, while harsh enforcement of the immigration laws in the United States led in 1905 to a boycott of American goods in China. Nevertheless, the laws excluding Chinese laborers remained on the statute book. Chinese resentment of this treatment was more than offset by the goodwill resulting from American friendly relations in the events following the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and the establishment of the republic in 1911; diplomatic friction over the exclusion policy soon disappeared.

By the 1940s over a fourth of the Chinese in the U.S. had arrived illegally. They obtained legal status in the 1950s under a federal amnesty program called "Chinese Confession Program" in which they admitted their illegal entry.[8]

Repeal 1943

The laws were repealed in 1943, during World War II, as the U.S. and China were allies fighting the Japanese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that making China an "equal" ally in every way would be important to preserve postwar stability. Public opinion in favor of the Chinese was mobilized by the nationwide speaking tours of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the American educated wife of the Chinese leader, and by publicity in Time and Life magazines (owned by Henry R. Luce, who was born in China to missionary parents) and from best-selling novelist Pearl Buck.[9]

Between 1944 and 1960, 42,935 Chinese immigrants entered the U.S, chiefly wives of American servicemen (16,985) or political refugees (10,376). Since refugees with relatives in America were given preference, postwar immigration significantly contributed to family reunification. The most stringent exclusions ended with new immigration laws in 1952 and 1965, that favored applicants with high skills and opened a route to full citizenship. Most of the Chinese Americans today are post-1945 arrivals and their children and grandchildren.


  1. See Sidney Lewis Gulick, American democracy and Asiatic citizenship (1918) p. 153 online
  2. Doremus Scudder, Chinese citizenship in Hawaii (1905) page 6 online; Stephan Thernstrom, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) pp 231-33 online
  3. Coolies existed but they did not go to America. About 125,000 Chinese laborers went to Cuba between 1847 and 1874 to work under conditions approximating slavery. See Moon-ho Jung, "Outlawing 'Coolies': Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation." American Quarterly 2005 57(3): 677-701.
  4. In Wong Kim Ark (169 U.S. 649 [1898]) the Court upheld birthright citizenship for Chinese under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  5. The few "paper daughters" were brought over to be wives of merchants or prostitutes in Chinatown. Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (1995).
  6. See Lau (2006) for details
  7. See Patrick Ettinger, "'We Sometimes Wonder What They Will Spring on Us Next': Immigrants and Border Enforcement in the American West, 1882-1930." Western Historical Quarterly 2006 37(2): 159-181; Erika Lee, "The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924." Journal of American Ethnic History 2002 21(3): 36-62.
  8. Immigration and Naturalization Service records showed 30,460 fraudulent claims among the 117,629 Chinese counted in the 1950 Census, or 25.8%. Mae M. Ngai, "Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration During the Cold War Years." Journal of American Ethnic History 1998 18(1): 3-35. Issn: 0278-5927 Fulltext: Ebsco
  9. Xiaohua Ma, "The Sino-American Alliance During World War II and the Lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Acts," American Studies International 2000 38(2): 39-61. Issn: 0883-105x Fulltext: Ebsco; Fred Riggs, Pressures on Congress: A Study in the Repeal of Chinese Exclusion (1950)