On June 25, 2012 the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court decided to uphold the central component of Arizona’s 2010 immigration statute—its so-called “‘show me your papers’ provision.”  Already the ruling seems to mark a pivotal turning point in the immigration debate that has dominated American politics for years. Following the decision, presumably concerned that the law’s enforcement might enable racial profiling, President Obama released a statement that read, “No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.”  It is unlikely that most Americans grasped the historical weight of Mr. Obama’s pronouncement, since America’s tawdry immigration history rarely receives any attention in elementary and high school education. But in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, refusing entry and citizenship to the vast majority of Chinese men and women—legislation that stemmed from many sources, but largely because these Asian émigrés looked different, and were perceived as dangerous and inferior. Even before the formal exclusion, anti-Chinese legislation had left discretionary powers to individual immigration agents, free to capriciously determine who looked like a criminal, who looked suspicious, and deny them entry to America.  The Chinese experience in America, and specifically the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, provides a unique perspective on one of the nation’s most central questions: who is an American, and who can become one?


Chinese Immigrants at the San Francisco Custom House. (Harpers Weekly Journal of Civilization, 1877.)
Chinese Immigrants at the San Francisco Custom House. (Harpers Weekly Journal of Civilization, 1877.)

What brought the Chinese to America in the first place? As with many immigrant groups, it was a combination of “push” and “pull” factors. Many aimed to escape poverty and persecution in China and hoped to make a fortune in America, especially after John A. Sutter discovered gold in California in 1848, beginning the Gold Rush.  Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the tremendous hopes that the Chinese had for their lives in America than the fact that they referred to their new home as “Gold Mountain”—and everyone desperately wanted to “become a successful Gold Mountain man.”  The Chinese flocked to California en masse; in 1852, approximately thirty percent of all migrants to California were Chinese.


As mining became more regulated—laws about who could and could not extract and own gold began to proliferate—disputes between Chinese and white miners, which had been at a minimum, grew in number. Chinese laborers were excluded from unions, and were forced to pay a prohibitively high “foreign miner” tax.  When construction began on the transcontinental railroad, a project necessitated by the gold rush, opportunities—and conflicts—for Chinese laborers only grew. Chinese men were often perceived as “the most economical, skilled, and dependable workers,” breeding resentment among white workers, who often retaliated in violent outbursts.

It was primarily fear of labor competition that motivated a spate of anti-Chinese legislation between the 1850s and 1880s, exacerbated by the economic Panic of 1873, and culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The problem was particularly acute in California, where Denis Kearney of the Workingman’s Party usedevery opportunity to shout, “The Chinese must go! They are stealing our jobs.”  Accordingly, the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically stated, “it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States [italics added].”  In fact, further emphasizing the intent of this legislation, its Section 15 went so far as to specify, “That the words ‘Chinese laborers,’ whenever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.”  The law left little room for interpretation. Only merchants, teachers, students, and diplomats were granted exemptions.

There was more transpiring than fears over job security. Particularly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, when many Americans encountered Chinese people for the first time, stereotypes and superstitions loomed large.  The Chinese were perceived as “totally unassimilable.”  Public opinion dictated that the Chinese spread disease and disemminated immorality, smoking opium and gambling all their money away.  The Chinese were ridiculed for their short stature, their traditional pony-tailed hairstyles and their “effeminacy.”


"Pacific Chivalry." (August 7, 1869). Thomas Nast. California ruffian whips John Chinaman.
“Pacific Chivalry.” (August 7, 1869). Thomas Nast. California ruffian whips John Chinaman.

They were simultaneously of inferior intelligence, and “‘cunning’ or ‘wily’ or ‘inscrutable.’” Ironically, Chinese men often encountered the most violence from members of other minority groups. Especially in the years immediately following Reconstruction, notions of white supremacy played an important role in Americans’ attitudes towards the Chinese.

"'Every Dog' (No distinction of Color) 'Has His Day'." (February 8, 1879). Thomas Nast.
“‘Every Dog’ (No distinction of Color) ‘Has His Day’.” (February 8, 1879). Thomas Nast.


"Which color is to be tabooed next?" 1882. Thomas Nash.
“Which color is to be tabooed next?” 1882. Thomas Nash.


The fallout was immediate. In 1880, California had become the first state to pass an anti-miscegenation law that included prohibitions against marriages with “Mongolians.”  It had always been more difficult for Chinese women to enter America, and in 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, which specifically barred prostitutes, a category that immigration agents could apply as they saw fit. As often occurred in American history, lawmakers seized upon gender categories in order to control a certain class or race; here, generations of Chinese-American men were left with impossibly few Chinese women to marry.

This is not to say that Chinese immigrants—men and women alike—were never able to evade the law. Most effectively, they came as “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” “derivative citizens” who could not be turned away.  And as Congress continued to pass more restrictive legislation,(renewing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 ten years later, and making it permanent with the Geary Act; and then establishing immigration quotas with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act) Chinese immigrants began to show more resistance, through a variety of “‘crafty practices,’ ‘fraudulent devices,’ and ‘bold perjury.’”  In addition to the efforts of individual immigrants, Chinese government officials tried to help. For example, in 1905, the Chinese government placed a boycott on American goods, aiming to pressure the American government to relax its immigration standards. Finally, in 1943, when America and China were allied against the Japanese in World War II, Congress passed the Magnuson, or Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act.

Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

Why has this saga so often gone ignored? Perhaps it is because “even at its height before 1882, Chinese immigration accounted for only 4.3 percent of the entries into the United States, with less than 3 percent settling east of Colorado.”  Perhaps it is because a notion of American exceptionalism necessitates a sort of cultural amnesia. But a clear understanding of the present—like the current immigration debate—is only possible when accompanied by an unadulterated view of the past, warts and all. It is the only way that Americans can work to actualize the principles of freedom and equality that they hold dear.

Suggested Primary Sources Related to Chinese Immigration and Exclusion 

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese Historical Society of America organized a panel of experts to discuss the legislation and its legacy moderated by Professor of Law and Asian American Studies Bill Ong Hing at the University of California, Davis.

Important Dates Related to American Immigration & Citizenship History 

1790: Naturalization Act

1868: 14th Amendment: Citizenship status given to native born, due process, equal protection

1870: Naturalization Act amended to include “Freed Africans and their descendants.”

1875: Page Law: Prohibitis contract laborers and Chinese women who might be prostitutes

1882: Chinese Exclusion Act: Prohibits Chinese laborers for 10 years, denies naturalization, does allow merchants, families & students to enter

1888: Scott Act: No re-entry permits

1892: Geary Act: Extended for 10 years, ID cards required with pictures to be carried along with listing defining physical attributes

1902: Extended for an inter-determinate period, also includes Hawaii and Philippines

1904: Extended indefinitely (“without modification, limitation, or condition)

1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement: prohibited Japanese & Korean laborers

1917: Barred Zone Act: Prohibited Indian and other South Asians from immigrating

1920: 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but did not include majority of Asian women due to citizenship laws

1922: Ozawa vs. US: Japanese immigrant at UC Berkeley who was married with two children. He only spoke English and was denied citizenship. He was a Christian and temperance leader. He argued in the Supreme Court that Japanese were of lighter skin compared to Italians, Greeks, and other Europeans.

1923: US vs. Thind: Already a citizen of Indian descent, he served in WWI, and active in the Indian Independence Movement. He argued that “mongoloids” were white

1924: Native Americans granted citizenship

1934: Tydings-McDuffy Act: Establishes fifty year requirement for Filipinos

1943: Repeal of Chinese Exclusion Acts

1946: Indian & Filipino immigrants granted the right to naturalization

1952: McCarren-Walter Act: does away with racial restrictions on citizenship, anti-communist, anti-gay & lesbian

1965: Immigration Act: Does away with national quotas, establishes preferences

For more information:

  1. Adam Liptak, “Blocking Parts of Arizona Law, Justices Allow Its Centerpiece,” New York Times, June 25, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/26/us/supreme-court-rejects-part-of-arizona-immigration-law.html?_r=1&_&hp 
  2. ibid. 
  3. John Soennichsen, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011), 65 
  4. Soennichsen, Chinese Exclusion,7 
  5. Lisa See, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 5 
  6. Soennichsen, Chinese Exclusion Act, 8
  7. ibid., 11-15 
  8. ibid., 25-26
  9. See, Gold Mountain, 44 
  10. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 47th Cong., 1st sess. 
  11. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 47th Cong., 1st sess. 
  12. See, Gold Mountain, 45
  13. Soennichsen, Chinese Exclusion Act, 27-29 
  14. See, Gold Mountain, 44 
  15. ibid.
  16. Soennichsen, Chinese Exclusion Act, 30-31
  17. ibid., 64
  18. ibid., 33 
  19. Estelle T. Lau, Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion(Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 21 
  20. Page Act of 1875, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. 
  21. Lau, Paper Families, 34 
  22. ibid., 114 
  23. ibid., 22 
Serena Covkin is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States history. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in History. In 2013, her U.S. History Scene article on Civil War photography was cited in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court.

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