'The Chinese Must Go!'

A look back at America's first major exclusionary immigration law


Courtesy Simon & Schuster

On February 28, 1882, Sen. John F. Miller of California introduced a bill to exclude Chinese immigrant laborers from the country. For two hours, the former Union general presented his case. The Chinese, Miller said, posed an imminent danger, in part because they came from a "degraded and inferior race." Other senators jumped in, calling them "rats," "beasts," and "swine." Oriental civilization, they claimed, was incompatible with the United States and threatened to corrupt the nation.

Chinese immigrants also posed an economic danger to white workers, Miller said, through their "machine-like" ways and "muscles of iron." The U.S. laborer, whether on the farm, the shoe bench, or the factory floor, simply could not compete with these low-paid counterparts. A vote for Chinese exclusion was thus a vote for both American labor and the public good.

There was minimal opposition to the law. Former Radical Republicans, such as Massachusetts Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, decried the act as "old race prejudice" and a crime against "the great doctrine of human equality affirmed in our Declaration of Independence." But most members of both the Senate and the House agreed that the Chinese needed to be stopped. "The gate…must be closed," Rep. Edward Valentine of Nebraska succinctly declared. Just over two months later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became law.

Today, as the debate heats up over the economic and security implications of immigration, particularly with regard to Muslims, it's worth looking back at America's first law to single out an immigrant group for exclusion.

'American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?'

Americans were first introduced to the Chinese through reports from U.S. traders, diplomats, and missionaries, who tended to describe the foreigners as crafty, dishonest heathens. When significant numbers of Chinese immigrants started coming to the country, they were the largest group of nonwhite immigrants to the United States. Almost as soon as they arrived, questions were raised about whether they should be welcomed or expelled.

Demagogues such as Workingmen's Party leader Denis Kearney blamed Chinese laborers for unemployment and low wages, capitalizing on a deep sense of economic insecurity during the depression of the 1870s. Anti-Chinese activists drew on earlier debates over Asian indentured labor in the Caribbean and Latin America, and they charged that the capitalists employing the Chinese were creating a new system of quasi-slavery to degrade U.S. workers. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, framed the issue with a pamphlet titled Meat vs. Rice—American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?

Industrialists, meanwhile, praised Chinese immigrants as an ample source of cheap, available labor to build the transcontinental railroad and to help develop the lumber, fishing, mining, and agricultural industries of the West.

Many restrictionist arguments stressed the sexual danger that both Chinese women and men allegedly posed to the country's morals. Chinese prostitutes were accused of causing "moral and racial pollution" through their interracial liaisons; Chinese men were said to lure pure and innocent white women into dens of vice and depravity. The men were also seen as undermining acceptable gender roles by engaging in the "women's work" of cleaning and cooking.

'Filth, Immorality, Diseases, Ruin to White Labor'

Nineteenth century popular culture helped spread these caricatures. One cartoon titled "A Statue for Our Harbor," published in 1881 in the San Francisco–based magazine The Wasp, encapsulated white California's fears about Chinese immigration. It depicted a statue of a grotesque Chinese male coolie in San Francisco Bay mocking New York's Statue of Liberty, then under construction. His ragged robes, rat-tail-like queue, stereotypical facial features, and opium pipe symbolized the supposed unassimilability and immorality of the Chinese. His foot rests on a skull, rats scurrying around the pedestal, as capsized ships languish under a slant-eyed moon. Rays of light emanating from the coolie's head inform readers that the Chinese bring "filth," "immorality," "diseases," and "ruin to white labor."

By the time that cartoon was published, Californians had been trying to regulate Chinese immigration for decades. As early as 1850, the state passed its first anti-Chinese law, in the form of a foreign miner's tax. Although the law was aimed at all foreigners, it was primarily enforced against the Chinese. In 1870, California collected $5 million in taxes from Chinese immigrants alone, an amount that equaled a quarter to half of the state's total revenue.

In 1854, Chinese immigrants were officially granted unequal status when the California Supreme Court ruled that they—along with African Americans and Native Americans—could not give testimony in court cases involving a white person. In support of its decision, the court argued that Chinese immigrants were a "distinct people…whom nature has marked as inferior." In 1855, California Gov. John Bigler signed a bill that taxed any master or owner of a ship found to have brought Asian immigrants to the state. Although the state Supreme Court invalidated the law, on the grounds that only the federal government had the power to legislate immigration, it foreshadowed national legislation to come.

Anti-Chinese sentiment also turned violent. From the 1850s through the end of the 19th century, Chinese Americans were systematically harassed, rounded up, and driven out of cities and towns across the West. During the winter of 1858–1859, a veritable race war began in the goldfields, as armed mobs forced Chinese out of various campsites and towns. In 1853, some 3,000 Chinese were in California's Shasta County. At the end of the decade, only 160 remained.

By the 1870s, anti-Chinese vigilante violence was common throughout the West. On October 24, 1871, 17 Chinese were lynched in Los Angeles after a Chinese suspect shot a policeman. A mob of nearly 500 people, representing nearly a tenth of the city's population at the time, dragged Chinese out of their homes while others hastily built gallows downtown to hang the victims. Police did little as a broad cross-section of Angelenos, including women and children, carried out what many historians have called the largest mass lynching in U.S. history.

The violence increased in the 1880s. In February 1885, the entire Chinese population of Eureka, California—300 people in total—was rounded up within 48 hours after a city councilman was killed in the crossfire between two Chinese rivals. On September 2, 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed and another 15 were wounded in Rock Springs, Wyoming; then the rest of the town's Chinese population, numbering in the hundreds, were driven out into the desert. On November 3, 1885, 500 armed men descended on the two Chinese neighborhoods in Tacoma, Washington, and forced all the residents—anywhere from 800 to 900 people—out of the city. Some were dragged from their homes and were forced to watch as their businesses were pillaged and belongings thrown into the street. Three days later, Seattle also demanded that all the Chinese leave town.

'The Crooked Path'

Beginning in the 1860s, the U.S. government passed a series of laws restricting Chinese immigration. The 1862 Coolie Trade Act outlawed coolie labor and U.S. involvement in the coolie trade. The 1875 Page Act kept out not just Asian laborers brought to the United States involuntarily but any Asian women suspected of prostitution.

The Chinese who came to the United States in the late 19th century were only a small fraction of the country's growing immigrant population. From 1870 to 1880, 138,941 Chinese immigrants entered the U.S., representing 4.3 percent of the total number of immigrants (3,199,394) who were admitted that decade.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act became law on May 6, 1882, it barred Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years and allowed entry only to certain exempt classes (students, teachers, travelers, merchants, and diplomats). It also prohibited all Chinese from obtaining naturalized citizenship. The message was clear: Chinese could come for business, travel, or education, but not to settle. In 1888 a second law, known as the Scott Act, imposed further restrictions. Laborers who had returned to China were forbidden to re-enter the United States unless they had wives, children, parents, or property or debts in excess of $1,000 here. The act nullified 20,000 return certificates that had already been granted to Chinese laborers.

In 1892, the Geary Act extended the exclusion laws for another decade, requiring all Chinese in the United States to register with the federal government to obtain certificates of residence (precursors to today's Green Cards) proving their legal right to be in the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed again in 1902 and made permanent in 1904.

The Chinese still living in the United States referred to the exclusion regime as a "hundred kinds of oppressive laws" and began to protest. "Why do they not legislate against Swedes, Germans, Italians, Turks and others?" Yung Hen, a Chinese poultry dealer in San Francisco, asked in 1892. "There are no strings on those people.…For some reason, you people persist in pestering the Chinamen."

When the Supreme Court in 1884's Chew Heong v. United States upheld the constitutionality of Chinese exclusion, Chinese activists turned their attention to opening up additional immigration categories within the confines of the restrictions. They used the courts to affirm that merchant families, returning laborers, U.S. citizens of Chinese descent, and their families had the right to enter and re-enter the country.

From 1882 to 1943, some 300,000 Chinese were admitted into the United States as returning residents and citizens, exempt-class merchants, family members, and so on. Many hired immigration lawyers or brokers to assist with their cases and prepare paperwork. Others learned to evade or circumvent the exclusion laws. As immigrant Ted Chan explained in a 1977 interview, "We didn't want to come in illegally, but we were forced to because of the immigration laws. They particularly picked on the Chinese. If we told the truth, it didn't work. So we had to take the crooked path."

The most common strategy was to falsely claim membership in one of the classes exempt from the exclusion laws, such as merchants or native-born citizens of the United States. A multinational business in false papers and relationships, or "paper sons," aided their efforts and an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the Chinese immigrants entering the United States during this time used false papers. The first ethnic group to be singled out for restriction, the Chinese, then spawned the first wave of "illegal immigrants."

'A Bowlful of Tears'

Nearly 100,000 Chinese entered the United States through San Francisco from 1910 to 1940. About half were admitted directly from their ships, and another half were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station. While popularly called the "Ellis Island of the West," this station was very different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island enforced laws that restricted, but did not prohibit, European immigrants. Angel Island enforced policies that singled out Asians for exclusion.

Chinese were first subjected to a primary inspection on the steamship that had carried them. After receiving identification numbers, new arrivals were sent to the hospital for a medical examination. There the staff examined their bodies for physical defects and even measured their body parts to determine their ages. They looked for evidence of parasitic "Oriental diseases" such as uncinariasis (hookworm), filariasis (round worm), and clonorchiasis (liver fluke), which were all grounds for expulsion if untreated after arrival.

Chinese immigrants found these examinations extremely humiliating. They were unaccustomed to being naked in front of strangers, let alone forced to provide stool samples on demand so that the hospital staff could test for disease. "When the doctor came, I had to take off all my clothes. It was so embarrassing and shameful," Lee Puey You recalled in 1939. She was held for 20 months and then sent back to China. She later told interviewers that she cried a "bowlful of tears" on Angel Island.

The arrivals then had to make their case to immigration officials. Merchants, for example, were required to provide detailed documentation of their business activities, the volume of their merchandise, and all their business partners. A returning merchant also had to have "two credible witnesses, other than Chinese" to testify on behalf of his status and state of business. Wives and children of merchants and citizens had to confirm that their husbands or fathers still qualified as exempt from the exclusion laws. They also had to prove that their relationship was genuine.

To combat the "paper son" system, Angel Island officials gave particularly strong scrutiny to cases involving families. As a routine part of the interrogations, prospective immigrants were questioned about a wealth of minute details concerning their family histories, relationships, and everyday life in the home villages—things immigration officials believed should be common knowledge to all parties. What are the marriage and birth dates of your family members? When did you last see your father? How many steps lead up to your house? How many windows are in your house? How many clocks are in your house? How many rows of houses in your village? Who lives in the third house, fourth row?

In some cases, applicants were required to draw extensive maps of their villages, complete with the locations of major buildings and all houses. Sometimes wives were required to recall minute facts about their husbands' extended family and native village or to share intimate details about their marital relationship. If any major discrepancies were discovered in the testimonies, immigration inspectors concluded that the relationship did not exist and the entire case was discredited.

These interrogations were terrifying. They typically lasted two or three days, but could take much longer if witnesses had to travel to the island to testify or if applicants had to be recalled and interrogated again. Applicants were often asked as many as 200 questions; some were asked a thousand. Law Shee Low, who was detained on Angel Island in 1922, recalled the anxiety and despair in the women's barracks over the interrogation: "One woman was questioned all day and then deported. She told me they asked her about life in China: the chickens and the neighbors, and the direction the house faced. How would I know all that? I was scared."

Because of these harsh interrogation methods, Chinese immigrants had one of the highest rejection rates at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Of the 95,687 Chinese who applied for admission there between 1910 and 1940, 9 percent were initially rejected. The vast majority appealed their decision through attorneys; in the end, 5 percent of Chinese applicants were ultimately returned to China.

Chinese also made up the overwhelming majority (70 percent) of the station's detainee population. Anywhere from 200 to 300 men and 30 to 50 women were detained in the Angel Island barracks at any given time. Their average stay was for two weeks, the longest of all the immigrant groups. Kong Din Quong, who arrived in San Francisco in 1938, spent the longest recorded time in detention: 756 days. His grandfather was a native citizen of the United States. His father, though born in China, also held U.S. citizenship status, but Kong was born before his father resided in the country. His admission was denied on the grounds that a father cannot transfer citizenship rights to his children until he becomes a U.S. resident. Kong appealed his case, but he was eventually deported.

Chinese immigrants bitterly resented their long detentions. They watched people from Japan, Russia, and South Asia come and go while they remained imprisoned. The barracks were crowded and sparsely furnished. The prisoners were guarded at all times and were not allowed visitors. Some wallowed in feelings of helplessness and despair. Others petitioned the Chinese Six Companies benevolent association in San Francisco or the Chinese consul general for help. Chinese men formed a self-governing association to provide assistance to their fellow detainees.

Many expressed their frustration, anger, resentment, loneliness, and despair by writing poems on the walls. More than 200 poems from the Angel Island barracks have been recorded. Written anonymously, they are found in almost every corner of the men's detention barracks (now preserved as a National Historic Landmark) and serve as powerful reminders of the costs and hardships of immigration under such a discriminatory regime. One reads:

There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls. They are all cries of complaint and sadness

The day I am rid of this prison and attain success, I must remember that this chapter once existed.

'Humiliation Day'

America's heated debate over Chinese immigration influenced other nations as well. In Canada, the Chinese were just a fraction of the more than 3.5 million immigrants who entered the country from 1885 to 1914. (In 1901, for example, there were only 17,312 Chinese there.) But as in the United States, they were greeted with an animosity disproportionate to their numbers.

Calls to keep British Columbia a "white man's province" and to rally around a "white Canada forever" fueled the movement to restrict immigration from China, Japan, and South Asia. Anti-Asian organizations, modeled after ones in the United States, adopted slogans like "The Chinese Must Go!"

Due to British relations with China, an all-out exclusion of Chinese immigrants was not feasible for Canada. Thus, instead of an explicit policy of exclusion, Canadian commissioners suggested a head-tax policy that would permit entry to every Chinese person, provided that he or she paid the landing fee. The federal government waited until a largely Chinese workforce had completed construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, then imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese laborers. In 1900, the tax was raised to $100. Three years later, it was raised again to $500.

One unintended consequence of the head tax was to turn Chinese laborers into a scarcer and increasingly valuable commodity. Chinese immigrant wages doubled and, in some cases, tripled. By 1909, the tax was less a deterrent to Chinese immigration than a profitable source of state revenue. From 1885 to 1923, Chinese immigrants paid $22.5 million to the Canadian government for the privilege of entering and leaving the country. No other group was required to pay these taxes.

In 1923, Canada transformed its regulation of Chinese immigration altogether. Closely modeled on U.S. exclusion laws, the 1923 Exclusion Act abolished the head tax system and instead prohibited all people of Chinese origin or descent from entering the country. Consular officials, children born in Canada, merchants, and students received the only exemptions. The act also required every person of Chinese origin in Canada, regardless of citizenship, to register with the government and obtain a certification of registration, as in the United States. For Chinese Canadians, July 1, 1923—the day the law was passed—came to be known as "Humiliation Day."

'Impossible to Compete With'

By 1910, Chinese lived and worked in almost every state and territory in Mexico. By 1926, they were the country's second-largest group of foreigners—around 24,000 total. The rise of the anti-Chinese activists, or antichinistas, soon followed.

Mexican newspapers called the Chinese "savages," "uncivilized," and "lazy." Chinese immigration itself was characterized in catastrophic terms: the "yellow wave," the "yellow plague," the "Mongol invasion." In the northern state of Sonora, antichinistas focused on the unfair economic competition that the Chinese allegedly posed to Mexicans. Although the Chinese population was never large, they dominated local commerce in groceries, dry goods, and general merchandise in border towns such as Nogales and Agua Prieta, where American companies were busy digging mines and building railroads. Sonorans, who already felt disadvantaged by the large presence of U.S. capital in the region, greatly resented the Chinese-owned businesses. The chino was "impossible to compete with," charged the anti-Chinese leader José Angel Espinoza.

Antichinista attacks on interracial marriages between Chinese men and Mexican women added another layer to the rhetoric. Chinese men were called lecherous, Mexican women who married Chinese men were demonized as traitors to their race, and Chinese-Mexican children were denigrated as "freaks of nature." Race, economics, masculinity, and sexual power were all bound together.

Anti-Chinese sentiment especially flourished after the Mexican Revolution of 1911, which tried to destroy all aspects of President Porfirio Díaz's reign—including his support of U.S. trade and policies encouraging Chinese immigration. The revolutionary indigenista nationalism included an intense xenophobia.

Anti-Chinese leader José María Arana, for example, pitted the "evils and vices of the Chinese" against the progress and national regeneration of the Mexican nation. José Angel Espinoza similarly identified the campaign against the Chinese as a movement "for the fatherland and for the race." Driving the Chinese out of Mexico was "the moral duty of all true Mexican nationalists," he proclaimed. The cover of his 1932 book El Ejemplo de Sonora (The Example of Sonora) boldly illustrated this message: A Mexican politician kicks a Chinese immigrant—greedily holding onto a bag of gold and a brick of opium—out of Sonora while holding a newly passed anti-Chinese law in his hand. A worker stands behind him to make sure that the will of the people is carried out while the sun looks on approvingly and heralds the victory.

An anti-Chinese riot broke out in Mazatlán in 1886, and several unprovoked attacks on Chinese occurred in Mexico City that same year. Then came the massacre in Torreón on May 5, 1911. This "two-day orgy of unbelievable brutality" resulted in the deaths of 303 Chinese (out of an estimated 600–700 in the city) and $850,000 worth of damage to Chinese businesses and homes.

In 1908, Mexico passed a new law, inspired by U.S. policies, to regulate immigration and create the Mexican Immigration Service. In 1927, the treaty between Mexico and China was canceled, and in July of that year, another race-based immigration law was passed, restricting the immigration of blacks, British Indians, Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, Palestinians, Arabs, Turks, and Chinese.

'The Dumping Ground for the Rest of the World'

By the 1930s, in addition to the controls put in place in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, most countries in Latin America had restricted Chinese entry in one way or another, varying from total exclusion to regulations that limited the number of immigrants allowed in each year. The anti-Chinese campaign that began in the United States ended up having far-reaching consequences for the regulation of immigration around the world.

It wasn't until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that a Congress embarrassed by America's race-based immigration system finally undid the Chinese Exclusion Act. Today, that 1965 law has come under increasing attack from the supporters of a presidential frontrunner who wants to deport millions of people and to ban a vast category of immigrants based on their religion. America, Donald Trump warns, has become "the dumping ground for the rest of the world." 2015 isn't really that far from 1882.