Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act was an immigration law passed in 1882 that prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group. It also excluded Chinese nationals from eligibility for United States citizenship. The initial version of the act prevented certain kinds of Chinese laborers from entering the United States, reserving immigration rights only for teachers, merchants, officials, teachers, merchants and travelers. However, in 1924 the act was amended to prevent all Chinese nationals from immigrating to the United States. The 1924 amendments to the Chinese Exclusion Act also prevented citizens of other Asian nations from immigrating to the United States. These laws were renewed twice and remained in effect until they were repealed in 1943.
Scholars have theorized about the social factors that led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Among these factors was the increased number of Chinese citizens that immigrated to California following the Gold Rush of 1949 to participate in the mining industry and railroad construction. In response, American mining laborers adopted xenophobic protectionist tactics to stem the perceived encroachment from Chinese workers. The Workingmen’s Party of California, led by demagogue Denis Kearney led the push to have Chinese workers excluded from California. Following the Gold Rush, California experienced record unemployment rates, a fact that likely contributed to some of the racist hostility directed at Chinese immigrants. In turn, scholars have argued, politicians courted American laborers with racist legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Evidence of the blatant and widespread racism faced by Chinese immigrants can be found in an often overlooked passage in Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson where he contrasts Chinese people with blacks by proclaiming that “the Chinese race [is] a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States.”
Although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is widely acknowledged to be the first immigration law that barred an entire ethnic group from immigration, scholars like Leti Volpp and Kerry Abrams argue that the Page Law of 1875 could alternatively be seen as the beginning of the Chinese Exclusion era. The Page Law prevented the immigration of women from “China, Japan or any other Oriental country” who were suspected of prostitution. Since many Chinese women at the time immigrated to the United States to participate in the prostitution industry by force or coercion, the Page Law functioned to effectively bring immigration of Chinese women to a complete halt. Kerry Abrams argues that while the Page Law was nominally concerned with preventing prostitution, it acted to pave the way for Chinese Exclusion Act and functioned to legitimize the concerns of anti-Chinese protectionists that branded Chinese immigrant families as deviant, despotic and wholly incompatible with citizenship in a democratic republic.
The Chinese Exclusion Act has distinctly harsh consequences for Chinese women because of the way marriage was regulated by Congress through immigration law. In her article Divesting Citizenship: On Asian American History and the Loss of Citizenship through Marriage Professor Leti Volpp describes the process through which women who were American citizens by birth lost citizenship due to the interaction of the Chinese Exclusion Act and a law passed in 1907 by Congress which states that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” While this law caused women of all races to lose their citizenship through marriage, it had a particularly devastating effect on Chinese women who were, unlike similarly situated white women, prevented from naturalizing because they were rendered ineligible for citizenship as a function of their race. By way of example, Professor Volpp includes the story of Ng Fung Sing, an American woman born in Washington State, who lost her citizenship as a result of her marriage to a Chinese man. After her marriage, Ng Fung Sing moved to China to live with her husband. Following his death two years later, Ng Fung Sing attempted to return to the United States and was prevented from doing so on the basis that she was no longer a citizen and was furthermore inadmissible as a result of her race. Volpp goes on to note that stories like those of Ng Fung Sing are generally left out of academic discussion of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which generally focuses on the effect of the Act on Chinese men.