The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first United States law to restrict immigration of a specific ethnic group. Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, it was a response to a nativist backlash against Chinese immigration to the American West Coast.
The law was passed after a campaign against Chinese workers, which included violent assaults. A faction of American workers felt that the Chinese provided unfair competition, claiming they were brought into the country to provide cheap labor.
On June 18, 2012, 130 years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the United States House of Representatives passed resolution apologizing for the law, which had obvious racial overtones.
Chinese Workers Arrived During the Gold Rush
The discovery of gold in California in the late 1840s created a need for workers who would perform grueling and often dangerous work for low wages. Brokers working with mine operators began to bring Chinese laborers to California, and in the early 1850s as many as 20,000 Chinese workers arrived each year.
By the 1860s the Chinese population constituted a considerable number of workers in California. It was estimated that approximately 100,000 Chinese males were in California by 1880.
Hard Times Led to Violence Against Chinese Workers
When there was competition for work, the situation would get tense, and often violent. American workers, many of them Irish immigrants, felt they were at an unfair disadvantage as the Chinese were willing to work for very low pay in dismal conditions.
Economic downturns in the 1870s led to job losses and wage cuts. And white workers blamed the Chinese, and persecution of Chinese workers accelerated.
A mob in Los Angeles killed 19 Chinese in 1871. Other incidents of mob violence occurred throughout the 1870s.
In 1877 an Irish-born businessman in San Francisco, Denis Kearney, formed the Workingman's Party of California. Though ostensibly a political party, similar to the Know-Nothing Party of earlier decades, it also functioned as an effective pressure group focused on anti-Chinese legislation.
Anti-Chinese Legislation Appeared in Congress
In 1879 the U.S. Congress, spurred on by activists such as Kearney, passed a law known as the 15 Passenger Act. It would have limited Chinese immigration, but President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it. The objection Hayes voiced to the law was that it violated the 1868 Burlingame Treaty the United States had signed with China.
In 1880 the United States negotiated a new treaty with China that would allow some immigration restrictions. And new legislation, which became the Chinese Exclusion Act, was drafted.
The new law suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, and also made Chinese citizens ineligible to become American citizens. The law was challenged by Chinese workers, but was held to be valid. And it was renewed in 1892, and again in 1902, when the exclusion of Chinese immigration was made indefinite.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed by Congress in 1943, at the height of World War II.