History of Immigration in the United States on China


The Statue of Liberty was a symbol of freedom and opportunity for millions of immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. That monument, which was a gift from the people of France to commemorate the centennial of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, was dedicated in a ceremony in New York Harbor in October 1886. Just four years earlier, however, the U.S. government had passed a law that seemed to go against the entire spirit of the memorial. The first of its kind, that law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, essentially banned all Chinese immigration to the U.S. The ban would continue well into the 20th century.

The U.S. was founded by immigrants. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the American colonies were settled by a variety of European peoples who came to the New World to escape political and religious persecution. Immigration was encouraged in the colonial era, but mostly because the vast majority of immigrants were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. When foreigners of another sort began entering the U.S. around the turn of the 19th century, immigrants were suddenly no longer welcome. (Chan, 86) In 1798, nine years after the U.S. government was formed under the new Constitution, Congress passed a series of controversial laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Those laws were partly an attempt to stem an influx of political refugees from France and Ireland, which were predominantly Catholic nations. A more concerted effort against immigrants was carried out by the “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850s. (Yung, 121) Railing against Irish-Catholic immigrants based on fears that their patriotism was overshadowed by their loyalty to the pope, that political movement, which materialized as the short-lived American Party in 1855, was only marginally successful.

Despite such isolated efforts, the policy and attitude of the U.S. towards immigrants before the Civil War (1861-65) was generally tolerant, and the immigration of free persons was virtually unrestricted by the federal government. That tolerance began to dissolve in the decades following the war, however, as “new immigrants” from regions other than Western and Northern Europe streamed into the U.S. Their arrival was critical to fueling the booming U.S. cities during the Industrial Revolution, a period of economic activity marked by the arrival of mass production, improved transportation, and the industrial factory system. (Michael, 65)

While the Chinese were initially welcomed as a source of cheap labor, they experienced a severe backlash in the 1870s. By that time, the Gold Rush had ended and the transcontinental railroad was complete, leaving a large population of Chinese immigrants and American settlers in their wake. Job competition between those two groups became fierce, particularly after the Panic of 1873 triggered a six-year economic depression. (Alarm-Heriot 98) Chinese workers, who were willing to work for much less than their American counterparts, increasingly faced discriminatory state and local laws and violent reprisals from working-class whites, mainly Irish-Americans.

Pressure from unions and anti-Chinese organizations in California became strong enough by the late 1870s for the issue of immigration to be thrust into the national spotlight. After a few years of diplomatic wrangling with China, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. law to ban immigration based on race or nationality. All Chinese people, except members of a select few professions, were barred from entering the country. Combined with a previous federal law that barred any Chinese from becoming naturalized American citizens, the Exclusion Act isolated a sizeable community of Chinese in the U.S. for more than a half-century. (Chen, 154) Though residents of the West Coast overwhelmingly favored Chinese exclusion, and Congress passed the Exclusion Act by a wide majority, there was still considerable debate over Chinese immigration. (Chan, 89) Should the Chinese have been allowed to benefit from the economic growth of the U.S., or was cheap Chinese labor detrimental to the U.S. economy and native workforce? Did the U.S. government have a right to exclude a particular nationality, or did the Chinese deserve to be discriminated against because they were a drain on the U.S. economy and refused to assimilate into American culture?

Supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act maintained that immigrant Chinese labor hurt the U.S. economy more than it helped. Because the Chinese were willing to settle for a much lower standard of living than U.S. citizens, supporters said, they unfairly undermined the livelihood of the American worker. And because Chinese workers did not purchase many consumer goods themselves, but instead pumped most of their earnings back into the Chinese economy, they dragged down the U.S. economy, proponents asserted. The only benefit of cheap Chinese labor was to fatten the profits of the capitalist class, they charged, which further widened the gap between rich and poor.

The Chinese were not just a threat to the U.S. economy, supporters insisted; they were also a threat to the American way of life. The Chinese refused to assimilate into white America, they argued, and retained every ounce of their foreign culture. (Erika, 235) Conversely, the strange, un-American and often immoral practices of the Chinese undermined American values, proponents of exclusion said. Even if some Chinese wanted to assimilate, others argued, they were simply incapable of doing so. (Michael, 67) The Chinese race was fundamentally incompatible with those of Western civilization, many claimed, which was contaminated by the very presence of the Chinese. Finally, supporters maintained, the immigration ban had to be complete because even a small Chinese community would serve as a magnet for millions. (Yung, 125)

Such racist rhetoric, opponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act countered, was inaccurate at best and deplorable at worst. The Chinese were hard-working and decent members of their communities, they said, who were characterized as dangerous and degenerate by political demagogues pandering to the fears of the working class. A great many American workers were once immigrants themselves, critics of the act contended; thus they should have been more sympathetic to their Chinese counterparts. The reason the Chinese did not readily assimilate was due to the constant animosity directed at them by white Americans, not to mention the federal law that made it impossible for them to become U.S. citizens, critics of exclusion argued. (Chan, 94) From an economic standpoint, opponents of the act maintained, the cheap labor provided by Chinese immigrants greatly benefited the U.S. Such labor decreased the cost of production, they said, and the savings could be funneled back into an ever-expanding economy. Employing a Chinese workforce reinforced the basic principles of the free market, they argued, which called for labor costs to be as low as possible. Other critics of the Exclusion Act insisted that the real culprit was the greedy capitalist, not the Chinese immigrant. They argued that workers of all races and nationalities should unite against that common enemy, who created the entire system of low-wage labor in the first place.

Acceptance of Chinese Immigrants

The California Gold Rush of 1849 caused a sudden and dramatic influx of Chinese immigrants to the American West. On January 24, 1848, a mill construction crew camped out on the American River near Sacramento, California, discovered a few gold nuggets on the riverbank. Word quickly spread, and by the following year hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors from around the world —dubbed the “Forty-Niners”—had descended on California in search of their fortunes. (Michael, 68)

Chinese workers, with their strong work ethic, acceptance of low wages, and willingness to work under dangerous conditions, were particularly appealing to mine operators. Business owners would hire brokers to pay for the transport of Chinese across the Pacific Ocean. Chinese immigrants, in turn, paid off their transit costs through their mine earnings. Once their debts were paid off, most mineworkers hoped to amass small fortunes in the “Golden Mountain”—the Chinese term for California—and return to China as rich men. (Erika, 227) The pull of economic opportunity in California combined with the push of economic hardship in China to inflate the number of overseas Chinese workers. In 1850, followers of Hung Hsiu-, a Christian schoolmaster from the southern province of Guangdong, revolted against the long-standing Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644. (Peter, 159) The Taiping Rebellion that unfolded over the next 14 years was one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, claiming the lives of an estimated 20 million to 30 million Chinese. Those who survived the bloodshed endured severe food shortages and dismal employment opportunities. In 1852 alone, more than 20,000 Chinese—almost exclusively from Guangdong—fled to California. (Aarim-Heriot, 101)

Meanwhile, the booming economy of the American West had opened up a range of job opportunities, in such industries as canning, timber, agriculture, and, most significantly, railroad construction. In 1862, after Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, construction began on the transcontinental railroad. That colossal project would connect the rail networks of California and the East, spanning almost the entire North American continent. (Chen, 154) The construction of the transcontinental railroad was undertaken by two private rail companies. Union Pacific Railroad laid out 1,087 miles of track from east to west, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, while Central Pacific Railroad laid out 690 miles of track in the opposite direction, starting in Sacramento. After several years of hectic construction, the two lines official met on May 10, 1869, in the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah. (Yung, 126) Low-wage Chinese laborers, or “coolies,” were essential to the rapid completion of the transcontinental railroad. With an average height of 4’10”and an average weight of 120 pounds, the Chinese initially faced skepticism from rail owners as to whether they could handle the strenuous work of rail construction, which typically involved 80-pound ties and 560-pound rail sections. But the Chinese turned out to be the best laborers of all, outperforming others to such an extent that nine out of 10 Central Pacific workers who stayed until the completion of the transcontinental railroad were Chinese—more than 11,000 in all. (Marissa, 89)

Despite their central role in the completion of the railroad, however, Chinese workers were paid significantly less than their white counterparts for the same work. For instance, Chinese workers laying tracks for the transcontinental railroad in Nevada and Utah received an average of $26 a month and had to pay for their board, while white workers were paid $35 a month and received freeboard. But while nativist sentiment against the Chinese had always been rampant among Americans, the anti-Chinese movement was relatively benign in the 1850s and 1860s. (Nativism is an attitude that favors the interests of established citizens over immigrants.) (Yung, 202) Official acceptance of Chinese immigration by the federal government was codified in the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, an agreement between the U.S. and China that sanctioned unrestrained movement of people between the two countries. Specifically, the treaty recognized “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects, respectively for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents.” (Aarim-Heriot, 104) Politicians and journalists praised the treaty, and many wrote of a special friendship connecting the U.S., the youngest nation, with China, the oldest.

Although the Chinese were free to work in the U.S., they were still denied full access to the American way of life. Most notably, the Naturalization Act of 1870 had limited naturalization to “white persons and persons of African descent,” thus placing Chinese and all other Asian peoples into a category of “alien’s ineligible to citizenship.” (Marissa, 90) While the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868 had guaranteed citizenship for “all persons born” in the U.S., thereby granting citizenship to second-generation Chinese, the message to the Chinese people was clear: You can come to work, but not to stay.

Backlash Against the Chinese

The passage of the Burlingame Treaty boded well for Chinese workers, who flocked to the U.S. in even greater numbers during the late 1860s. But by the 1870s, the Chinese faced a sharp increase in anti-Chinese sentiment. While there had always been cultural animosity towards the Chinese, the key factor to the growth in animosity was economic.

With the Gold Rush exhausted and the transcontinental railroad complete, there was no longer a major need for Chinese labor. The railroad, in turn, triggered a huge influx of white settlers from the East. The combination of less work and more people fueled fierce job competition between Chinese immigrants and Americans. (Chen, 154) Resentment towards Chinese workers was rooted in their willingness to accept low wages, which led business owners to hire them in much greater numbers. For instance, the Chinese made up nearly 25% of California’s unskilled labor force in 1870 but were just 10% of the state’s total population. (Yung, 206) As job competition increased in the 1870s, violence directed towards the Chinese escalated. Racial tensions in Los Angeles exploded into mob violence in late October 1871 when around 500 people—or 10% of the town’s population—indiscriminately attacked members of the Chinese community. ( Peter, 165) Some 20 Chinese men and boys were murdered in the “Chinese Massacre,” one of the worst incidents of anti-Chinese violence in U.S. history. (Marissa, 93) News of the massacre quickly spread around the world, and the U.S. government was compelled to issue an official apology to China.

Mob violence against the Chinese flared up again in 1877, a year when unemployment in California hovered at 20%. In late July, workers in San Francisco rallied en masse to express solidarity for railroad workers mounting a nationwide strike. (Erika, 223) The protest soon got out of hand, and a prolonged riot ensued. Venting their nativist anger, the white mob burned down dozens of Chinese businesses, including 20 laundries, and attacked scores of Chinese bystanders. Following the riot, a San Francisco businessman named Denis Kearney harnessed the widespread anti-Chinese resentment by forming the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC). Kearney was an Irish-born immigrant who had come to the U.S. as a young man, established a hauling business in San Francisco, and became an American citizen in 1876.

A fiery orator who threatened “to kill every wretch that opposes [his movement],” Kearney was frequently arrested under a “gag law” that made it a felony to encourage riots through inflammatory rhetoric. He also popularized the nativist battle cry “The Chinese must go!” The WPC would go on to spearhead the national anti-Chinese movement. In January 1878, the party held its first statewide convention in San Francisco. It declared a broad anti-capitalist agenda, which condemned big business in general and the railroad industry in particular. The WPC also called for the abolishment of Chinese labor, which the party argued had driven down the wages of working-class whites for the benefit of both business owners and “un-American” Chinese workers.

While the WPC dominated only two election years—1878 and 1879—before falling by the political wayside, it succeeded in shaping several of the anti-Chinese provisions written into the California Constitution of 1879. (Aarim-Heriot 105) Those included the total disenfranchisement of any “native of China,” a complete ban on Chinese employment in the public sector, and a call to the state legislature to protect California “from the burdens and evils arising from” the presence of Chinese immigrants. Californian lawmakers closely reflected the sentiments of their citizens; in a statewide referendum that year to determine how the public felt about the Chinese, 99.4% of voters opposed their presence. (Yung, 209) The political momentum from local anti-Chinese organizations like the WPC finally spilled over onto the national scene in the late 1870s. California and its neighboring states had emerged as a veritable economic stronghold, and the Democrats and Republicans in the East began to vie for Western constituencies. The public clamor against the “Yellow Peril” was overwhelming. (Marissa, 93) That racist term, referring to the so-called yellow skin color of people from East Asia, invoked the fear that Western civilization itself was under threat from Chinese immigration. The most vocal defenders of the Chinese were entrepreneurs, who wanted them for their cheap and reliable labor, and missionaries, who wanted to convert them to Christianity.

In early 1880, Hayes appointed James Angell, former president of the University of Michigan, to lead a diplomatic team to renegotiate the Burlingame Treaty with China. In October 1881, after more than a year of talks with the Angell Commission, the Chinese government agreed to give the U.S. the power to “regulate, limit, or suspend” the immigration of Chinese laborers. (Peter, 170) However, China stipulated that those traveling to the U.S. as “teachers, students, merchants, or from curiosity” and their servants, as well as Chinese workers already in the U.S., should maintain the right “to go and come of their own free will and accord.” (Yung, 211) In 1882, with the revised treaty in place, Congress passed another exclusion bill. Under the new proposal, a total ban on immigration of Chinese laborers would be imposed for 20 years. But like Hayes, President Chester A. Arthur (R, 1881-85) vetoed the bill. Arthur claimed the 20-year ban was too harsh and not in the spirit of the 1880 negotiations with China. But he also hinted at approving “a shorter experiment,” so Congress went back to the drawing board. (Chen, 154)

Finally, on May 6, 1882, Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law; the act excluded Chinese labor for just 10 years. It did permit the entry of teachers, students, and merchants, but only in very limited numbers. It also defined women as laborers, making it impossible not only for female workers to immigrate to the U.S. but also for the wives and children of Chinese laborers to be reunited with those workers in the U.S. Congress would renew the actin 1892 and 1902, and the ban was kept in place until 1943.

Findings and Conclusion

In the two decades after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the U.S. and China constantly argued over the extent to which the U.S. government could limit Chinese immigration. The Bayard-Zhang Treaty of 1888, which would have prevented the immigration of Chinese who did not have at least $1,000 in assets or family in the U.S., faced fierce resistance in China and was never ratified. Congress subsequently passed the Scott Act (1888) and the Geary Act (1892), both of which imposed severe new restrictions on Chinese immigration. In 1894, China finally agreed to replace the Burlingame Treaty with a new one that permitted another 10-year ban. Ultimately, in 1902, the U.S. imposed a permanent ban.

While American and Chinese politicians wrangled over various laws and treaties, the Chinese continued to face rampant discrimination and violent reprisals within the U.S. Segregation laws, akin to “Jim Crow” laws used against African Americans, were strictly imposed by various Western states to limit the rights of the Chinese. Violence against them was higher than ever in the 1880s, particularly during the so-called Anti-Chinese Hysteria of 1885-86. The worst incident of violence during that period was the murder of 28 Chinese mineworkers who refused to join a strike in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in September 1885.

While the Chinese Exclusion Act singled out one specific nationality, it also triggered a whole range of restrictions on a variety of immigrant groups, including East Indians, Japanese and Middle Easterners. That same year, for instance, Congress passed a bill that imposed a tax on every immigrant entering the U.S., while prohibiting the entry of convicts, the mentally retarded, lunatics, and that thought likely to become a public charge. The restrictions of that era culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924. Congress primarily passed that law to stem the tide of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, but it also barred nearly all Asians.

In spite of the Exclusion Act, Chinese merchants, their families, students, and elite travelers continued to enter the U.S. legally. But the law proved very effective in limiting the great majority of those seeking entry—laborers—and thus the Chinese population in the U.S. substantially declined. Nevertheless, many Chinese workers entered the country illegally, either by sneaking across borders or jumping ship as stowaways. One elaborate scheme involved the abuse of an immigration loophole that allowed U.S.-born Chinese to bring back two children whom they had conceived while visiting China. Instead, they brought back people posing as their children, who were usually extended family members but sometimes strangers who paid for a slot. Because “children” with false papers were usually boys, they were referred to as “paper sons.”

A major turning point in the history of Chinese immigration occurred during World War II (1939-45). In that conflict, the U.S. and China were close allies against Japan. As a token of solidarity, Congress in 1943 passed the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, scaled back other exclusion laws, and for the first time allowed Chinese to become naturalized U.S. citizens. That law by no means swung open the doors to Chinese immigration, however; China was allotted an annual quota of just 105 immigrants under the Magnuson Act. (While restrictions on Chinese immigration were relaxed during the war, U.S. policy toward another Asian people—the Japanese—tightened significantly. In addition to a continued ban on all Japanese immigration, the U.S. government, out of national security concerns and a general suspicion towards the loyalty of Americans of Japanese descent, forcefully relocated more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into “War Relocation Camps,” an incident known as Japanese Internment.)

Not until the Immigration Act of 1965 did the U.S. government finally equalizes immigration and abolishes the various national-origin quotas in place since 1924. “The time has come for us to insist that the quota system be replaced by the merit system,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy wrote in favor of the act. Under the new law, an annual limit of 170,000 visas was established for immigrants from Eastern Hemisphere countries, with no more than 20,000 immigrants from each country, regardless of the size of that country. Of those visas, which were available on a first-come, first-served basis, 75% were for specified “preference” relatives of citizens and lawful permanent residents, and an unlimited number were available to spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens.

Despite the landmark act of 1965, immigration has continued to be a hot-button issue well into the 21st century. The debate over illegal aliens entering the U.S. from Mexico has been particularly heated. In 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that nearly seven million illegal immigrants—70% of them Mexican—resided within the U.S.

In 2004, President George W. Bush (R) proposed that a guest-worker program be created to absorb migrant laborers who would otherwise come to the U.S. illegally. In late 2005, the House passed a controversial immigration bill that proposed, among other provisions, the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and stiff penalties for anyone aiding or abetting illegal aliens. In early 2006, the Senate passed a similar bill, which included a key “path to citizenship” provision that would allow immigrants who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship by paying fines and back taxes.

Works Cited

Aarim-Heriot, Najia. Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003: 98-106.

Andrew, Gyory. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, 1998: 278-292.

Chan, Sucheng (ed). Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994: 86-96.

Chen, Yong. Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2000: 154

Erika, Lee. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007: 223-235.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998: 137.

Marissa K. Lingen. Chinese Immigration (Changing Face of North America) Publisher: Mason Crest Publishers, 2004: 89-93.

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Peter, Kwong & Dusanka, Miscevic. Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience. Publisher: Universe, 2000: 157-170.

Yung, Judy, Gordon Chang and Him Mark Lai (eds.). Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2006: 121-126.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999:202-211.