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Before It Embraced Immigrants, California Championed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The magic washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese must go
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“Have we any right to close our doors against one nation and open them to another?” asked San Francisco lawyer H.N. Clement before a California State Senate Committee in 1876. “Has the Caucasian race any better right to occupy this country than the Mongolian?” Clement answered his own questions: “A nation has a right to do everything that can secure it from threatening danger and to keep at a distance whatever is capable of causing it ruin.”  The danger was, Clement’s words, “the half civilized subject from Asia” – specifically, the Chinese.[1]

At the time, the federal government in Washington exuded an “abolitionist idealism” that expressed little sympathy with anti-Chinese exclusionists. Between 1865 and 1870, sweeping civil rights legislation in the form of several constitutional amendments and congressional enforcement acts became the law of the land. Admittedly, these laws would not be adequately enforced until decades later, but they at least expressed a certain hope for equality.

It would be California politicians and xenophobes who would initiate the idea of 'closing America’s gates.'

Unfortunately for Chinese laborers, by the end of the 1870s, western states like California exerted a great importance electorally. Failure to address the concerns of the anti-Chinese lobby of the West meant electoral doom.[2] Frontier capitals like Sacramento and municipal governments like San Francisco sought to protect the rights of white workers while also racially shaping their “nascent communities.”[3] It would be California politicians and xenophobes who would initiate the idea of “closing America’s gates.” Californians, notes historian Erika Lee, argued that it was nothing less than their duty and their sovereign right to protect the nation.[4]

Antipathy toward the Chinese in California – evident in the racist caricatures that pervaded illustrations in the popular press and even commercial advertisements – had begun decades earlier. When Chinese miners arrived as part of the Gold Rush, they were greeted with the 1852 Foreign Miner’s Tax Law. In theory, the tax applied to all foreigners, but in practice, Chinese miners paid for 90 percent of its revenue. The 1852 tax would account for nearly a quarter of state revenue up to 1870. California had monetized xenophobia.[5] Anti-Chinese discrimination was not limited to economic matters; the threat of racial violence was never far from the surface. In the gold fields, white miners frequently targeted their Chinese counterparts to run them off successful claims. Anti-Chinese violence visited California cities, too, most notably in 1871, when 500 Angelenos ransacked their city’s Chinatown, murdering at least 19 Chinese residents.

For Teachers: Lesson Plan

By 1875, California’s senators pressured Washington to pass the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited convicted felons, prostitutes, and Asian contract laborers from entering the U.S.[6] The Page Act functioned as a precursor to the more sweeping Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which doubled down on these restrictions, banning all Chinese laborers. It allowed exceptions for students, merchants, teachers, travelers, and diplomats but also denied all Chinese immigrants the prospect of naturalized citizenship, relegating them to the status of perpetual foreigner (a categorization later expanded to all Asian immigrants).

First page of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
First page of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The exclusionary legislation was a rebuke to a people who had in many ways built the Golden State. The Chinese had created hundreds of businesses and conducted valuable international commerce, bringing wealth to California. And without Chinese labor, the infrastructure of the American West might never have been built. When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific tracks met at Promontory Summit in 1869, thousands of Chinese workers had played a critical role in its completion. Though whites refused to acknowledge it for decades, the Chinese had inscribed their right to live and labor in California in the state’s physical landscape.

Despite economic marginalization, the number of Asians living in California continued to increase, and by 1880 they accounted for just over nine percent of the state’s population. Labor leaders like San Francisco’s Dennis Kearney denounced them as tools of capitalist owners who wielded Chinese labor like a cudgel against white workers. The result, nativists like Kearney argued, were poor working conditions and lowered wages. More often than not, however, large businesses and corporations operating at economies of scale without strong government regulation had little incentive to guarantee safe working conditions or livable wages. Racially and culturally distinct, the Chinese made easy scapegoats.

A Chinese placer miner
A Chinese placer miner, circa 1856. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.
Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad
Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, circa 1860s. Stereograph courtesy of the California State Library.

Moral arguments were deployed as well. Critics like Henry George argued that the Chinese in California never intended to stay and so were not committed to the American project – and even if they did remain, could not be trusted to adopt the nation’s values. George, like others, accused the Chinese of lacking character and Christianity. They were “utter heathens, treacherous, sensual, cowardly and cruel,” he wrote in 1869.[7] The rhetoric of the exclusion movement proved so successful that it would be adopted to vilify groups that followed the Chinese in similar ways: Koreans, Japanese, Indians, and, later, Mexicans.

Critics like Henry George argued that the Chinese in California never intended to stay and so were not committed to the American project – and even if they did remain, could not be trusted to adopt the nation’s values.

Europeans, too, found themselves subject to arguments that had once been deployed against the Chinese. “If it became necessary to protect the American workingmen of the Pacific slope from the disastrous and debasing competition of Coolie labor,” the Democratic party’s 1884 handbook read, using a then-common racial slur for Chinese people, “the same argument now applies with equal force and pertinency to the importation of pauper labor from Southern Europe.”[8] In California, the nativist Junior Order of United American Mechanics aligned themselves with the Asiatic Exclusion League and described southern Europeans as “semi-Mongolian.”[9]

In a multiracial, still-developing West, if one could connect his or her identity with whiteness, some level of privilege followed. White Americans of European descent, such as Kearney, an Irish immigrant, or San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, the Irish-American leader of the anti-Japanese movement, used whiteness to paper over these differences between their native born and Western European counterparts. Even if maligned by some native born whites, Irish-Americans and Southern and Eastern Europeans in California and the West juxtaposed “immigration and whiteness” against “Asian-ness or ‘yellowness,’” argues Lee.[10]

The magic washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese must go
"The Chinese Must Go" (1886) by Shober & Carqueville Lith Co., courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Uncle Sam's lodging-house
"Uncle Sam's Lodging House" (1882) by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

By setting a pattern that used race and class to limit new arrivals, the Chinese Exclusion Act influenced U.S. immigration policy for decades. In 1892 it was reinforced and expanded with the passage of the Geary Act, which remained on the books until 1943 and required Chinese laborers to register with the government or face deportation, hence the creation of the “undocumented Alien as law breaker,” notes historian Adam McKeown.[11] Eastern and Southern Europeans and Mexicans would all be subject to its influence through subsequent federal immigration legislation, notably the Immigration Act of 1917 (sometimes referred to as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act), the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, and the Immigration Act of 1924. Each used race, ethnicity, and class to limit immigration.

By setting a pattern that used race and class to limit new arrivals, the Chinese Exclusion Act influenced U.S. immigration policy for decades.

In particular, the 1924 act, historian Mag Ngai argues, stood as “the triumph of Progressive Era nativism and the historical terminus of open immigration from Europe.” Mexicans became “illegal aliens”; Asians permanent foreigners “ineligible to citizenship.” Southern and Eastern Europeans, though subject to quotas, earned the right to become “white Americans.”[12]

The 1882 law and those that followed shaped how Americans articulated their identity. “Americans learned to define American-ness by excluding, controlling, and containing foreignness,” writes Lee. The administrative process that grew out of Chinese exclusion classified specific groups as “unassimilable,” “undesirable,” “diseased,” and “illegal.”[13]

American immigration policy has always been conflicted. Nineteenth-century California played a critical role in creating its parameters and enforcing many of its negative aspects. However, 21st-century California represents the antithesis of its much older self. Today, Asian-Americans help define the Golden State’s culture and its open – even defiant – embrace of diversity. As George Washington Professor Tyler Anbinder recently noted, “fear of new immigrants may be part of the American character, but so too is the ability to overcome that fear." California testifies to that reality.

Wong Turn's certificate of registration
Immigration document for Wong Turn, courtesy of the Chinese in California Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.


[1] Erika Lee, “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882-1924”, Journal of American Ethnic History, Spring 2002, 38-39.

[2] Adam M. McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) 133-134.

[3] McKeown, Melancholy Order, 130.

[4] Andrew Gory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1-2; Lee, “The Chinese Exclusion Example”, 38.

[5] McKeown, Melancholy Order, 126.

[6] McKeown, Melancholy Order, 129.

[7] Henry George, “The Chinese in California”, New York Tribune, May 1, 1869 in Major Problems in Asian American History, Eds. Lon Kurashige and Alice Yang Murray, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 99.

[8] Lee, “The Example of Chinese Exclusion”, 42.

[9] Lee, “The Example of Chinese Exclusion”, 49.

[10] Lee, “The Example of Chinese Exclusion”, 43.

[11] McKeown, Melancholy Order, 126.

[11] McKeown, Melancholy Order, 172.

[12] Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law”, 70, 72.

[13] Lee, “The Example of Chinese Exclusion”, 41.

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