Tuesday, May 06, 2008

May 6

On this date in 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a bill insisting that “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof.”

For decades, whites along the west coast had been agitating for greater regulation of Chinese labor. States like California passed openly discriminatory legislation against the Chinese from the early 1850s onward, while Chinese miners and railroad workers faced wage disparities and violence throughout the country. Meantime, anti-Chinese ideologues insisted in the press and from the pulpit that “Asiatics” represented an economic, political and moral hazard to the white republic. During the presidential campaign of 1880, the Democratic and Republican parties committed themselves to an exclusionary policy

To remedy this presumed affliction, this new law -- the so-called “Chinese Exclusion Act” -- effectively ended Chinese immigration for the next six decades by prohibiting the entry of all Chinese laborers into the US. Under the terms of the act, those who were not common “laborers” -- merchants, diplomats or teachers -- were permitted to come to the US provided that they received certification from the Chinese government assuring that they were not, in fact, common workers. Those Chinese workers already living in the US were allowed to stay but faced greater bureaucratic obstacles if they wished to travel abroad and return; the act also clarified that resident Chinese were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

Opponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act were hardly silent throughout this period. In Congress, various Senators and Representatives argued that the proposed bill would violate America’s treaty obligations to the Chinese while needlessly alienating other Asian peoples; others insisted that the law would run contrary to the nation’s pluralistic values and that it would capitulate to racists and demagogues. Harper’s Weekly stated the latter case against the bill a month before its passage:
The coming of 230,000 or 240,000 Chinese in a quarter of a century, and the presence of 100,000 in the country at the end of that time, are not the precursor of an overwhelming invasion. The bill is founded on race hatred and panic. These are both familiar facts even in this country. It is not a very long time since one of the most familiar objections to the antislavery movement was that the fanatics wanted to free the "nay-gurs," who would immediately overrun the North and supplant the Irish. It was mere panic. We have always invited everybody to come and settle among us, because the chance of bettering his condition was fairer here than anywhere else in the world. If we now exercise our right to select new-comers, not upon great public considerations the truth of which is demonstrated, but because of race hatred, or of honest labor competition, or fear of local disorder, the movement will not stop there.
These predictions proved accurate. By World War I, the United States had passed an array of restrictive laws barring a variety of classes from immigration: people with certain diseases or handicaps, paupers, contract laborers, prostitutes or other “immoral” women, illiterates, anarchists, and convicted felons. No other law, however, targeted a single national group for exclusion. Meantime, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been reauthorized several times until it became permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943, when Congress graciously permitted 105 Chinese immigrants to enter the United States each year.

In 1965 -- nearly a century after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act -- racial quotas were at last removed from American immigration law.