EastLaw: Immigration and Chinese Exclusion

May 4, 2011

Asian American theme monthMay is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  During the month of May, we’ll be looking at important legal landmarks in U.S. history relating to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Almost immediately after the first Japanese immigrants arrived in America on May 7, 1843, Asian Americans faced discrimination.

However, they were unique as a minority group at the time because they first arrived in the United States as immigrants (as opposed to blacks, Latinos and Native Americans).

This added element made Asian Americans vulnerable to discrimination in the area of immigration law, and were essentially the first group to face discrimination in such a way.

And it didn’t take very long for that discrimination to manifest, which it did in 1882 in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Act was passed in response to anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast that arose from poor economic conditions and a widespread belief that Chinese immigrants were, for lack of a better phrase, “stealing American jobs.”

The law criminalized any immigration from China, which effectively made all Chinese immigrants illegal immigrants.

However, the law didn’t stop there.

It also imposed restrictions on legal Chinese residents should they ever leave the country, requiring them to procure certifications for reentry.

In addition, the law precluded Chinese residents from ever obtaining U.S. citizenship.

As strict as the Act was, it was followed by several more laws that were even more severe.

The next law passed was 1888’s Scott Act, which voided existing Chinese certifications for reentry and barred formerly lawful Chinese residents from reentering the country should they leave.

This was an unprecedented move by Congress to arbitrarily change the legal status of immigrants.

As such, it faced legal challenges to that exercise of power, with Chae Chan Ping v. United States making it to the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately for the law’s challengers, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, stating that Congress has the power to exclude aliens from, or prevent their return to, the United States, for any reason it may deem sufficient.

Although the original Exclusion Act was originally set to expire after ten years, anti-Chinese sentiment hadn’t quieted, and the Act was extended in 1892 by the Geary Act.

Rather than simply extending the Exclusion Act, the Geary Act also required Chinese already in the U.S. to possess “certificates of residence” to prove that they entered the U.S. legally and had the right to remain in the country.

If a Chinese immigrant was found to be in violation, he could be arrested, face up to a year of hard labor, after which he would be deported.

While the Geary Act again only extended the law for another ten years, when it was renewed again in 1902, it was done so without an expiration date.

Chinese Exclusion ended during World War II with the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943, when China officially became an ally of the United States in the War.

However, because of disproportionately low quotas, Chinese immigration was limited to 105 individuals per year until 1965’s Immigration and Nationality Act.

Immigration is still a hot political topic, and even though Chinese Exclusion has ended, the saga is still relevant.

That is because legally, Congress still has the power to deny entry or citizenship to any group of people from any country it so chooses.