The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: Racism on a Federal Level

After the US Civil War, thousands of Chinese immigrants helped build the railroads starting on the West Coast, but then a racist law stopped everything.

Apr 3, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
chinese exclusion act 1882


In the aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-65), the victorious Union wanted to reunite the country. Part of doing so meant settling the West, or America’s vast interior. To do so, it needed to build a railroad through this interior. In building the Transcontinental Railroad, which stretched from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco, California, thousands of workers were needed in California for the Central Pacific Railroad. These low-cost laborers came from China and performed backbreaking labor in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Sadly, these workers often met only racism and discrimination, which was capped by the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next sixty years, immigration from Asia to the United States was essentially banned.


Setting the Stage: Immigration to the United States

statue liberty 1885
An image of the famous Statue of Liberty from 1885, which was gifted to the United States by France. Source: Iowa State Historical Society


The debate over immigration into the United States has been highly contentious, with periods of spiking tensions. For the first several decades of the nation’s existence, from 1781 until the early 1800s, the United States encouraged open immigration. During the early days of the republic, immigration was encouraged as a way to grow the economy and help the nation expand westward. Under the 1790 Naturalization Act, any “free white persons” who had lived in the country for two years would be granted citizenship, along with their children, if they swore allegiance to the US Constitution.


In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts increased the length of residency for citizenship to fourteen years. It also allowed the government to deport immigrants who were undesirable. However, the law expired after two years, and in 1802, the government reduced the residency requirement for citizenship down to five years. During the US Civil War, the position of commissioner of immigration was added to the Department of the Secretary of State and was intended to encourage immigration. Six years later, a new immigration act allowed persons of African descent to be naturalized as US citizens (linked to the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution).


Setting the Stage: Nativism Rising After the Early 1800s

nativism political cartoon
A nativist political cartoon criticizing many immigrants as threatening to American values and competitiveness. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


Although the nation as a whole supported immigration as a way to develop the economy and expand westward, many individuals and groups strongly disliked immigrants who were seen as different or un-American. Nativism emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, largely against Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland. The first substantial wave of non-Protest immigrants was seen by many as an affront to American values. This first wave of nativism peaked in the early 1850s with the creation of the “Know Nothing” political party.

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Nativism was influenced by the rapid growth of immigration beginning in the 1840s, with critics of immigration highlighting their religious differences to imply that they were dangerous and untrustworthy. Political tensions heightened as Catholics became the majority in some areas, resulting in politicians courting their votes and appointing Catholics to some government positions. “Know-Nothings” were also part of the anti-alcohol temperance movement and tried to use Catholic immigrants’ drinking of alcohol as a wedge issue by declaring that they were drunkards who threatened polite society.


The Transcontinental Railroad

transcontinental railroad completed 1869
A photograph of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Source: Linda Hall Library


In the Northeast, most Americans knew relatively little about Asia or immigration from that continent. The West, largely unsettled, seemed inaccessible to all but the most brave (or foolish) adventurers. This changed in the 1860s, first with the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave away free land to settlers, and then with the Transcontinental Railroad. Not only did the railroad promise to make it possible for any civilian to cross the continent, from the Northeast to California, in relative safety, but it also gave economic opportunity to many marginalized groups who were willing to work hard: Mormons and immigrants.


On the West Coast, building the railroad from California eastward, most of the labor was done by Chinese immigrants. Between 10,000 and 15,000 immigrants were recruited to work for the Central Pacific Railroad. After believing that most Irishmen were drunkards, contractors switched to focusing on recruiting Chinese workers. The Chinese were also used as leverage to keep other immigrant groups in line and not demand higher wages. Impressed with an initial group of 50 Chinese laborers, foreman James Stobridge quickly hired many more. This, unfortunately, caused tension with white workers, who resented new colleagues with different backgrounds.


Chinese Immigration to the West Coast

chinese immigrants california 1852
A photograph of Chinese immigrants in California participating in gold mining in 1852. Source: California Migration Museum


Chinese immigration began on the West Coast during the 1840s, usually in the form of young men ready to perform manual labor. In the 1850s, they worked in the gold mines during the California gold rush. During this decade, the first families began arriving from China, looking to escape economic troubles back home. They were considered cheap labor, especially after the California gold rush dried up. By 1851, some 25,000 Chinese immigrants had made their way to California, most discovering quickly that the stories about a gold rush had largely been myths.


Some Chinese men could return home and later bring their families back to the United States, but a majority did not. The 1880 census discovered a ratio of about twenty men per one woman from China. Outside of mining and the railroads, Chinese laborers also worked in agriculture. Over time, cities in California began developing predominantly Chinese neighborhoods, known as “Chinatowns.” Here, some immigrants could work providing services for other Chinese immigrants. After 1868, Chinese immigration to the US increased under the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, which allowed American companies to import low-cost Chinese workers.


Conditions Faced by Chinese Immigrants

railroad workers chinese immigrants
Chinese immigrants working on the Transcontinental Railroad, such as those above, faced harsh conditions and mistreatment in society. Source: NPR


Working conditions for most immigrants to the United States were rough during the 1800s. The Chinese, however, suffered even worse from outright racial prejudice and discriminatory pay; Irish workers on the Transcontinental Railroad were paid more and received free boarding. Many employers specifically used Chinese laborers to drive down the wages expected by white workers, with those workers frequently taking their anger out on the Chinese instead of the employers. Eventually, however, white railroad workers learned to work with their Chinese counterparts or face being replaced.


Outside the railroads, Chinese immigrants often faced discriminatory laws banning them from working various jobs. Violence was common, with perpetrators rarely punished. Chinese workers were robbed with impunity and often shot and killed if they refused to hand over their wealth. Due to racism and fears of tough job competition, there was little public interest in defending Chinese immigrant laborers. Many were run out of towns in the West, and their belongings and shops were destroyed in anti-Chinese riots. Violence worsened after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with whites fearing job competition from thousands of Chinese workers now looking for employment.


Political Pressure for a Ban on Chinese Immigration

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An 1878 illustration in The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp using racist imagery to criticize Chinese immigrants. Source: Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, California


Local and state laws quickly targeted Chinese immigrants, often forcing them to pay fees and abandon their traditional methods of doing things. Government employment, and even the use of public schools, was banned for the Chinese. Courts typically excluded testimony from Chinese immigrants, meaning any legal disputes between Chinese and white residents would almost automatically be decided in favor of the white party. This racism was joined by increasing economic fears in the 1870s as the US economy faltered. No longer needed for railroad labor, Chinese immigrants were often scapegoated (blamed unfairly) for falling wages and high unemployment.


In the late 1870s, advocates for restricting Chinese immigration began to gain ground in Congress. The Democratic Party, prominent in the Western states, wanted a full ban on Chinese immigration. Attempts by states like California to impose limits on Chinese immigration had violated the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, as did an 1879 attempt by Congress. President Rutherford B. Hayes had been forced to veto Congress’ 1879 bill because it violated the Burlingame treaty, so he sent diplomat James Angell to negotiate a new treaty. In 1880, the new Angell Treaty finally allowed for long-sought restrictions on immigration from China.


The Chinese Exclusion Act is Passed

chinese exclusion act may 6 1882
A headline praising the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was signed into law on May 6, 1882. Source: Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)


With the Angell Treaty providing the legal justification for limiting Chinese immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Notably, it was the first law substantially limiting immigration to the country, reversing a historic trend of America being a champion of migrants seeking new opportunities and freedoms. Immediately after the passage of the Exclusion Act began attempts to eliminate any “loopholes” used by Chinese immigrants, with stricter amendments passed in 1884. The ban was made even stricter in 1888 with the Scott Act, which banned re-entry into the United States after visiting China, even for long-term US residents.


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A newspaper headline heralding the passage of the controversial Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Source: PBS


In 1892, the ten-year ban on Chinese immigration was extended again by Congress. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court upheld birthright citizenship (allowing those born in the US to automatically be considered American citizens) for Chinese Americans in the case United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). This was likely of little comfort to the Chinese immigrant community, as the ability for Chinese men to return home and bring back their wives had been essentially eliminated. In 1902, the ten-year ban was extended again, this time to include US territories of Hawaii and the Philippines.


Effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

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Immigrants at the Angel Island Immigration Station, which opened in 1910 to process minimal immigration from Asia and the Pacific. Source: Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation


Unfortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act only emboldened those who already held animosity toward Chinese immigrants. The 1880s saw violence inflicted on Chinese immigrants and workers in the West, including Wyoming and Oregon. In China, the government saw the 1902 Geary Act extension of the ban as a humiliation and organized a short-lived anti-American boycott, which fizzled after diplomatic pressure from US President Theodore Roosevelt. Economically, the ban on imported Chinese labor backfired and led to reduced labor wages across the board, largely disproving nativist rhetoric that the Chinese were “stealing jobs.”


The law was highly successful in limiting immigration from China, with fewer than 2,000 additional Chinese residents in the United States recorded in 1890. After World War I, numerical limits on immigrants from specific countries were extended to Europe with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This act banned immigration from other Asian nations as well, including Japan. This new law heightened political tensions between the US and Japan and was intended to further prevent “un-American” immigrants from threatening traditional American values. In the aftermath of post-World War I radicalism, especially the Communist Revolution in Russia, many Americans felt an increased suspicion of immigration.


World War II: Overturning the Chinese Immigration Act

china ally during wwii
A World War II poster praising China’s struggle against Japan as one of the Allied Powers. Source: University of North Texas (UNT).


When the United States joined World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it officially became one of the Allied Powers. In Asia, this meant an alliance with China, which had been at war with Japan since the 1930s. Politically, having a ban on Chinese immigration was problematic when being allied with China against Japan. Thus, the Chinese Exclusion Act and its later revisions were abolished in 1943. However, open immigration was not allowed: a quota of only 105 annual immigrants was allowed. Immediately after the Allied victory in World War II, civil war returned to China as the Communists and Nationalists resumed fighting for control.


Immigration from China to the United States almost ceased after the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, as Communist China banned emigration (leaving the country). Beginning in the 1980s, after the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and China in 1979, Chinese immigration returned to the US. By 2016, approximately 2 million Chinese immigrants resided in the United States. Between 2010 and 2017, immigration from China has increased roughly 30 percent.


Aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act

nativism immigration debate today
A modern-day protest against US immigration policies. Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


In 1965, a new Immigration and Nationality Act removed the quota system used since the 1920s. It allowed for the rapid expansion of immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, three locations that had been heavily discriminated against in prior immigration laws. The new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 prioritized immigration based on skill and family relations with US residents. This allowed many family members of prior Chinese immigrants – who had been excluded since 1882 – to apply for visas. Since the law took effect in 1968, the Asian and Asian-American ratio of America’s demographics has increased substantially, increasing the country’s diversity.


However, nativism remains a recurring political theme in the United States despite the overall liberalization of immigration policies since the 1880s. Although today largely aimed at Latin American immigrants, age-old rhetoric that “cheap labor” from foreign countries threatens to “steal American jobs” remains common. Some have argued that a new wave of far-right conservatism in the United States has sparked a new era of nativism, including the call to build a wall on the US border with Mexico. Immigration from Latin America remains a hot-button political topic, and questions about “securing the border” will remain pertinent for several election cycles to come.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.