Chinese Immigration and the United States, specifically dealing with treatment and legislation

California was officially made a US territory in 1848, following the Mexican-American War (statehood: 1850). Just over a week later, gold was found at Sutter's Mill, signaling the beginning of the gold rush (many of the new prospective Californians arrived the following year, hence the term "forty-niners"). This led to a great number of people immigrating there in search of wealth, prosperity, and land. Along with people from the US and its territories, many immigrants arrived from China (particularly from 1850 onward) as news of the gold spread to their country. This wasn't initially considered a problem and was encouraged because they were enthusiastic cheap labor.

As far as the Chinese were concerned, it was fine as even the small wages were enough to make a life for themselves in the communities they set up (often based on where they originated from or their dialect). It also was helpful in saving up to bring their relatives over to their new home (or to return to China where they would be wealthy). At the time, China was experiencing a period of economic problems and poverty (and hunger in many cases), so many men came to the United States to work. In addition to mining, many Chinese laborers were used to help build the railroads. As they stayed and established communities, enterprising men opened shops and restaurants and laundries.

Being "different" culturally and racially, there was always a degree of prejudice—even racism— but they were tolerated in as much as their services were useful. By 1867, some 50,000 had arrived in the US (discriminatory actions and laws had already begun). The influx of the Chinese as well as other non-Americans ( Russians, Irish, and others), fueled a strong "nativist" backlash that only became worse as the gold gradually paid out and money and jobs became more difficult to attain. As is typical in cases like this, the first scapegoat is the "foreigner"—especially a different-looking, differently acting, dressing, and speaking foreigner (and one who lives in communities with "more of his kind"). When the economy went into a depression in the 1870s, this made resentment run even higher, as these "Chinamen" were accused of stealing away jobs and lowering wages. This was made worse through actions such as the Union Pacific Railroad hiring Chinese laborers to break a strike in the Wyoming territory.

Early Anti-Chinese Legislation
But prior to that, California had already passed laws that were aimed at immigrants—particularly and sometimes exclusively—including the Chinese. During the 1850s, taxes and fees were leveled at miners who weren't eligible for citizenship (like the Chinese). Shipmasters were taxed and required to list passengers, including posting bond for each or paying a tax on each (to discourage immigration). They were further required to pay an additional tax on passengers ineligible for citizenship (this was later ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court). A foreign miner's tax was enacted—one set to increase each succesive year ( repealed and put at a "set" amount, instead). Another unconstitutional law (it took four years to be struck) was one that forbid Chinese from landing in California unless it was during a "weather-related emergency."

In the 1860s, it continued. A "Chinese Police Tax" (referring to "the legislative authority to regulate for health, safety, welfare, and morals of the state") was announced requiring almost every Chinese in the state to pay a $2.50 fee (also ruled unconstitutional the same year). Chinese people were not allowed to testify in court cases and their children were not allowed to attend public schools. (And other legislation.) Later legislation (1870s) disallowed Chinese from working county irrigation projects and even from owning real estate.

Burlingame-Seward Treaty
The American minister in China was approached by the Chinese government and asked to head a diplomatic mission to the United States and Europe. The important result for Sino-American relations was a revision of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. The original treaty was made because of the two countries

desiring to maintain firm, lasting and sincere friendship, have resolved to renew, in a manner clear and positive, by means of a treaty or general convention of peace, amity and commerce, the rules which shall in future be mutually observed in the intercourse of their respective countries.

The revision (1868) expanded on the original in many ways, particularly the treatment of each country's respective citizens. It stated that citizens in the other country would be free from religious persecution (all religions, as the original only stipulated " Christians"). That people were free to change their residence and the freedom of "migration and emigration" (either way). With that freedom was also the protection from forced "migration and emigration." Also, both countries were allowed to establish schools in the other country as well as its citizens were free to attend the schools of the country they were in (bringing up problems for the earlier California legislation).

Of particular import (to immigration) was Article VI:

Citizens of the United States visiting or residing in China shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities or exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation, and, reciprocally, Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation. But nothing herein contained shall be held to confer naturalization upon citizens of the United States in China, nor upon the subjects of China in the United States.

This helped increase immigration, having the promise of protection from discrimination and exploitation. Of course that didn't always work in practice. China and Washington were pretty far away.

Toward the Exclusion Act
Throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, resentment and discrimination increased, often at the hands of labor groups or "associations" such as the "Anti-Coolie Association" and the "Supreme Order of the Caucasians" (while these groups generally were against any nonwhite labor, the Chinese were a particular target). Boycotts of Chinese businesses and protests were held. There were even a few riots. And, as noted, local/state legislation aimed at the Chinese. Though there were some courts (again, local) that opposed such legislation—such as the "Queue Ordinance" that required male prisoners' hair to be no longer than an inch (aimed at the custom of wearing a "pigtail")—the feelings were contagious.

A House Resolution in 1867 requested legislation to help curb immigration of "Chinese and other inferior races." Nothing came of it, practically, but the idea remained. 1879 brought what was called the "Fifteen Passenger Bill." It stated that there could be no more than fifteen Chinese citizens aboard any ship docking at an American port. This of course, would effectively break the 1868 treaty. President Rutherford B. Hayes was against the measure (not the "spirit" of the law but the way it was gone about). So the idea of working with the Chinese government to revise the treaty was raised.

According to the 1880 revision, it was claimed to be "because of the constantly increasing immigration of Chinese laborers to the territory of the United States, and the embarrassments consequent upon such immigration." The key change was found in Article I, which included:

Whenever in the opinion of the Government of the United States, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States, or their residence therein, affects or threatens to affect the interests of that country, or to endanger the good order of the said country or of any locality within the territory thereof, the Government of China agrees that the Government of the United States may regulate, limit, or suspend such coming or residence, but may not absolutely prohibit it.

It added that it only applied to "Chinese who may go to the United States as laborers, other classes not being included in the limitation." It also promised (again) protection from "personal maltreatment or abuse" and the security of "all the rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions which are accorded to the citizens and subjects of the most favored nation." While, it limited immigration, it allowed all Chinese subjects the freedom to return to China and come back to the United States if they wished.

The Chinese Exclusion Act
The revision went into effect in 1881 and Congress continued its work on restriction of immigration. This culminated in the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It banned all immigration from China for a period of twenty years. As with the 1880 treaty, those already in the United States prior to the Act, were allowed to come and go relatively freely. As long as they had proper identification. Leaving the country required getting a certificate to prove one's status. It was also necessary to return. Further, Section 14 states that "hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed."

Because President Chester A. Arthur felt it broke the treaty of 1880, he vetoed the act. Congress dropped the term to ten years and took out an "internal passport" requirement. This time, Arthur signed it. It was said that flags in San Francisco (which had a large Chinese population) flew at half mast. Not stopping with the Chinese, a few months later, Congress passed a tax on all new immigrants.

1884 brought amendments to the Act which tightened the certification situation. More information was required on the certificate, it could only be issued by the federal government, it was the only proof of residence, and it could be rejected as "inauthentic" by immigration officials. Further, it stated that the Act applied to all Chinese, regardless of national origin or citizenship.

Beyond the Exclusion Act
Not finished with the "immigration problem," Congress passed more legislation. The Scott Act (1888) built upon the Exclusion Act. It barred any Chinese who had left the country to return and voided the previous certificates. It is estimated that 20,000-30,000 laborers were outside the country at that time. This followed an explosion of violence and riots in many cities on the West Coast and elsewhere against the Chinese (1885-1886). There was harassment, expulsion, arson, and property damage. The worst of it started in September 1885, with an attack by 150 armed (white) men that resulted in the death of 28, the wounding of 15 and expulsion for several hundred. While the US Supreme Court upheld the Act, the Chinese government refused to recognize it.

The Geary Act of 1892 extended the period of exclusion another ten years. It brought back the "internal passport" provision which was now for all Chinese residents. Being without one could get one deported. Also, bail would be denied to Chinese involved in habeas corpus proceedings. Again, the Act was upheld by the US Supreme Court.

The Exclusion Act became law in 1902 and the period became "permanent" for all intents and purposes with the passage of legislation in 1904 that made it "hereby reenacted, extended, and continued, without modification, limitation, or condition." After the fires from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed many family records, people that had "illegally" immigrated changed their names and identities in order to remain "legally."

A further immigration legislation in 1924 extended the "exclusion" to nearly all Asians and remained in effect until 1943, when it was repealed (not coincidentally, China was an ally). But despite that, immigration was still limited to only 105 Chinese a year.

Finally in 1965, the quota was abolished and free immigration was returned, including the grant of citizenship rights.

(Sources:!KeyIssuesTopPage.htm,,,, legal quotes from except for the Treaty of Tein-tsin which can be found at

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