History of Laws Restricting Chinese Immigration in the United States

“The Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) of the mid-nineteenth century between Great Britain and China left China in debt. Floods and drought contributed to an exodus of peasants from their farms, and many left the country to find work.” During the 1850s, a large amount of Chinese immigrants had begun immigrating to the United States to work as a cheap labor in the gold mines, garment factories, building railroads, and taking agriculture jobs. Thus, the local plantation owners were seeking cheaper labor forces, which created a tension between white labors and exotic labors.

In 1882, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first significant law restricting immigration of a certain group into the United States. “Many Americans on the West Coast attributed declining wages and economic ills to Chinese workers. Although the Chinese composed only 0.002 percent of the nation’s population, Congress passed the exclusion act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white racial purity.”

In 1892, the Geary Act was passed to extend the ban on Chinese immigration for additional ten years and in 1902, the Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act. Due to the effectiveness of legislation, the Chinese immigrants population dramatically declined.

Note from Caroline: while the Magnuson Act allowed a small number of Chinese immigrants into the country with restricted rights, race-based restriction of immigration was not outlawed until 1952, and restriction based on nationality was not outlawed until the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which we heard about last week. It’s also worth noting that immigration from other Asian countries was strictly controlled as well, and Asian immigrants and their American-born children in general faced substantial discrimination. (In fact, at the time the Magnuson Act was signed into law during World War II, most of the U.S.’s Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were detained in internment camps.) 


“U.S. Immigration Timeline.” History.com Editors, 21 Dec. 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/immigration-united-states-timeline. Accessed 1 Mar. 2020

“Chinese Exclusion Act.” History.com Staff, 24 Aug. 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882. Accessed 1 Mar. 2020.

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