When Chinese Were Banned From the U.S.

'Throwing Down The Ladder by Which They Rose.' Thomas Nast, 1870 (Image:  The New York Public Library Digital Collections  /  CC0 1.0)
'Throwing Down The Ladder by Which They Rose.' Thomas Nast, 1870 (Image: The New York Public Library Digital Collections / CC0 1.0)

On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring the entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq — for at least 90 days.

In addition, the president’s executive order, “Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” suspends the admission of non-Syrian refugees for 120 days and bans the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely.

It is worth remembering that the president’s actions do not constitute an aberration in American immigration history. On the contrary, racial, national origin, and religious immigration quota systems have long been integral to America’s approach to regulating the freedom, movement, and rights of non-white people, including Chinese Americans.

Chinese immigrant workers building the transcontinental railroad. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Chinese immigrant workers building the first transcontinental railroad. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-1800s. The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened the door to laborers from China, with a significant wave of immigration during the California gold rush from 1848 to 1855 and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad from 1863 to 1869.

However, as the numbers of Chinese laborers increased, so did anti-Chinese sentiment among working class white Americans. Most Chinese laborers who came to the United States did so in order to send money back to China to support their families.

At the same time, they also had to repay loans to Chinese merchants who paid for their passage to America. These financial pressures left them little choice but to work for whatever wages they could obtain.

“Uncle Sam kicks out the Chinaman” 1882 (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

‘The Chinese Must Go’ 1882 (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Many working class white Americans felt that Chinese laborers were squeezing them out of their livelihoods. Furthermore, as with most immigrant communities, many Chinese settled in their own neighborhoods, and rumors spread that Chinatowns were places where large numbers of Chinese men congregated to visit prostitutes, smoke opium, or to gamble.

Others used a more overtly racist argument for limiting immigration from China and expressed concern about the integrity of American’s white racial composition.

As resentment against Chinese immigrants grew, a series of restrictive state and federal laws were enacted that restricted the liberties of Chinese Americans. The California state government passed a series of measures between the 1850s and 1870s designed to prevent naturalization by requiring special licenses for Chinese businesses and workers.

In 1875, the U.S. Congress passed the Page Act, which made Asian immigrants, including Chinese, the only racial group barred from naturalization.

"Golden Gate of Liberty" 1882 (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

‘Golden Gate of Liberty’ 1882 (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

However, it was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which represented the first major national origin statute barring the entry of Chinese into the U.S. The major elements of the Act:

  • Established a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor (skilled or unskilled) immigration.
  • Placed new restrictions on Chinese who already resided in the U.S., as they had to obtain certifications to re-enter the country.
  • Denied citizenship to American-born children of Chinese immigrants even though the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution granted citizenship to all children born in the United States.

When the Act expired in 1892, the U.S. Congress extended it for another 10 years with the passage of the Geary Act. It was made permanent in 1902 and required Chinese residents to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Without a certificate, they risked deportation.

When the exclusion law was in effect, Chinese immigrants were often subjected to detention and questioning at San Francisco’s Angel Island. (Image: National Archives / CC0 1.0)

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect, re-entering residents were often subjected to detention and questioning at San Francisco’s Angel Island. (Image: National Archives / CC0 1.0)

The U.S. Congress passed these measures in response to white, native-born fears over wage depression at the hands of “racially-inferior” Chinese laborers living on the West Coast. The acts effectively halted Chinese immigration until 1943. They were repealed in the interest of aiding the morale of a wartime ally during World War II.

Still, enforcement of these acts resulted in widespread hardship, turmoil, and fear for some 70 years.

Contemporary debates about President Trump’s ban remind us that the United States has been down this road before, with government regulations periodically issued to address the nation’s latest iteration of fear of foreign-born nationals.

Still, because of the wisdom of America’s founding fathers, the legislative acts, executive orders, and court challenges designed to restrict the rights of one ethnic or religious group over another were all eventually found to be unconstitutional.

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