By Greg Hugh

At the end of this year, the Chinese Exclusion Act would have been repealed for 75 years.  TPT will be broadcasting a series, “The Chinese Exclusion Act: American Experience” that asks “What it means to be American?  What makes you American?”  Check your local TPT station for dates and times when The Chinese Exclusion Act will be shown.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (Immigration Act of 1882) was a U. S. federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers.  The act followed the Angell Treaty of 1880, a set of revisions to the U.S.-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868 that allowed the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration.  The act was initially intended to last for 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and only law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States.  It was repealed by the Magnuson Act on Dec. 17, 1943.

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to believe that once upon a time in America, Chinese were considered heathens and subjected to widespread persecution and violence.  The earlier hostile attitude toward Chinese is very different from the contemporary esteem for them as a "model minority" to be emulated by others. 


Many scholars explain the institution of the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar laws as a product of the widespread anti-Chinese movement in California in the second half of the 19th century.  The Chinese had constituted a significant minority on the West Coast since the middle of the 19th century.  Initially, they labored in gold mines, where they showed a facility for finding gold.  As a result, they encountered hostility and were gradually forced to leave the field and move to urban areas such as San Francisco, where they were often confined to performing some of the dirtiest and hardest work. 

Americans in the West persisted in their stereotyping of the Chinese as degraded, exotic, dangerous, and competitors for jobs and wages.  In spite of their indispensable role in the development of the American West and providing labor for the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, the Chinese suffered severe exploitation.  They were discriminated against in terms of pay and forced to work under abysmal conditions.  White workers viewed them as economic competitors and racial inferiors, thereby stimulating the passage of discriminatory laws and the commission of widespread acts of violence against the Chinese. 


The exclusion laws had dramatic impact on Chinese immigrants and communities.  They significantly decreased the number of Chinese immigrants into the United States and forbade those who left to return.  According to the U.S. national census in 1880, there were 105,465 Chinese in the U.S., compared with 89,863 by 1900 and 61,639 by 1920.  Chinese immigrants were placed under a tremendous amount of government scrutiny and were often denied entry into the country on any possible grounds.  In 1910, the Angel Island Immigration Station was established in San Francisco Bay.  Upon arrival there, a Chinese immigrant could be detained from weeks to years before being granted or denied entry.  Chinese communities underwent dramatic changes as well.  Families were forced apart, and businesses were closed down.  Because of the severe restrictions on female immigrants and the pattern of young men migrating alone, there emerged a largely bachelor society.  Under the continuing anti-Chinese pressure, Chinatowns were established in urban cities, where the Chinese could retreat into their own cultural and social colonies.

The excluded Chinese did not passively accept unfair treatment, however, but rather used all types of tools to challenge or circumvent the laws.  One such tool was the American judicial system.  Despite having come from a country without a litigious tradition, Chinese immigrants learned quickly to use the courts as a venue to fight for their rights and won many cases in which ordinances aimed against the Chinese were declared unconstitutional by either the state or federal courts.  They also protested against racial discrimination through other venues, such as the media and petitions.

Some Chinese simply circumvented the laws altogether by immigrating illegally.  In fact, the phenomenon of illegal immigration became one of the most significant legacies of the Chinese-exclusion era in the U.S.  Despite the disproportionate time and resources spent by U.S. immigration officials to control Chinese immigration, many Chinese migrated across the borders from Canada and Mexico or used fraudulent identities to enter the country.  A common strategy was that of the so-called “paper son” system, in which young Chinese males attempted to enter the U.S. with purchased identity papers for fictional sons of U.S. citizens (people of Chinese descent who had falsely established the identities of those “sons”).  Thus, Chinese exclusion was not only an institution that produced and reinforced a system of racial hierarchy in immigration law, but it was also a process that both immigration officials and immigrants shaped and a realm of power dominance, struggle and resistance.

The impact of the exclusion laws went beyond restricting, marginalizing, and, ironically, activating the Chinese.  It signaled the shift from a previously open immigration policy in the U.S. to one in which the federal government exerted control over immigrants.  Criteria were gradually set regarding which people — in terms of their ethnicity, gender, and class — could be admitted.  Immigration patterns, immigration communities, and racial identities and categories were significantly affected.  The very definition of what it meant to be an American became more exclusionary.  Meanwhile, Chinese-exclusion practices shaped immigration law during that time period.  Believing that courts gave too much advantage to the immigrants, the government succeeded in cutting off Chinese access to the courts and gradually transferred administration of Chinese-exclusion laws completely to the Bureau of Immigration, an agency operating free from court scrutiny.  By 1910, the enforcement of the exclusion laws had become centralized, systematic, and bureaucratic.

Since it was repealed in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act has been remembered as a dark period in American history, when Chinese immigration all but halted for over six decades.  Evidently, we must be predisposed to repeat history inasmuch as the current wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.  As Chinese and Japanese immigrants who have undergone similar immigration scrutiny and discrimination, are these groups more sympathetic to the Muslims?  However, that would be a topic for a separate article. 


“The Chinese Exclusion Act" film screening and reception

Hosted by NAAP Minnesota and others and cosponsored by Asian American Professionals MN, Asian American Studies Program, University of Minnesota

Date:  May 9, 2018

Time:  6:30-7 p.m., pre-screening reception; 7 p.m., screening begins; 7:40-8:30 p.m., panel discussion 

Location:  Twin City Public Television, 172 Fourth St. E., Saint Paul

TPT, the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center, and the Center for Asian American Media will be presenting an early preview of the upcoming special presentation of American Experience, "The Chinese Exclusion Act," is scheduled for national broadcast on May 29.  A panel discussion with experts and community leaders on the impact of exclusionary immigration policies today will follow the screening.  Hors d'oeuvres will be served and a cash bar will be available.

The Chinese Exclusion Act sheds light on the important connections between the Chinese Exclusion Act and the history of American civil liberties, immigration and culture.  By examining the socioeconomic and geopolitical forces that led to the Act, the film uncovers the Act's unmistakable and wide-ranging consequences on national attitudes towards race, culture, politics and society.  At its core, "The Chinese Exclusion Act" is a film about American identity, tracing the arc of what has defined being American from the time the United States was a fledgling republic through its astronomical rise as a world superpower. 

Panel discussion explores the connections between laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Muslim ban, as well as current debates around immigration, race, and civil liberties in Minnesota and beyond.  Panelists are:

Jaylani Hussein, executive director, Council of American Islamic Relations, MN

Erika Lee, director, Immigration History Research Center

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director, Coalition of Asian American Leaders

This event is made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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