The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:05 What Is the Chinese…
  • 0:45 Background
  • 2:29 Impact
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and significance of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and test your understanding on American politics, racism, and the origins of American immigration policy.

What Is the Chinese Exclusion Act?

Immigration is a hot-topic issue in the United States. This is actually nothing new, nor are any of the arguments against immigration or immigrants. In fact, most of the modern concerns about immigration date back to the mid-19th century and were originally targeted at the Chinese.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was an American law signed by President Chester Arthur that prohibited Chinese workers from entering the United States. It was one of the most significant restrictions on immigration in American history and set many standards for American immigration policies. On a lighter note, it is also partially responsible for the creation of Chinese food as we know it.

Background of the Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1848, miners struck gold in California. The promise of instant wealth lured immigrants from nations with poor economies. Since it was easier to get to California from Asia by boat than it was to get from New York City to California by stagecoach before the railroad, most immigrants were poor laborers from China. They came for the gold, then stayed around to help build the transcontinental railroad.

The original Chinese immigrants never intended to stay in America. Rather, they believed they could make enough money to support their families, and return to China. At first, these new workers were well-received by local Americans. However, as the gold ran out and other jobs became more scarce, the Chinese became targeted, and anti-immigration sentiment developed. American labor leaders and politicians began blaming Chinese laborers with the idea that their willingness to work for low wages stole jobs from Americans and kept salaries from increasing.

Around this time, anti-Chinese groups were founded in California with an emerging sentiment of nativism. Nativism is the political and social idea that established inhabitants of certain ethnicities deserve special, favored status above newcomers or immigrants. In other words, white Americans should have the first pick of jobs, better opportunities, and more rights over immigrants. Nativism is often associated with other racist policies.

The first attempts to formally block Chinese immigration came in 1858, when California passed a law to prohibit the Chinese from entering the state. The Supreme Court struck it down in 1862. By 1882, everyone agreed to restrict immigration, partly because violent fights between Americans and Chinese were breaking out across the country, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 specifically stated that no Chinese laborers could enter the U.S. Technically, non-laborers (those who did not perform manual labor) could still enter the United States, but it was difficult to prove who was a laborer and who was not, and most Chinese were simply turned away. The Act had important ramifications for Chinese in the United States who had either intended to visit families or to live with them in California. This is partially because the Act defined Chinese immigrants as permanent aliens, meaning they could never be citizens.

The Exclusion Act was amended in 1884 to make it harder for Chinese workers to leave and then return. The Supreme Court renewed the Exclusion Act in 1892 for a ten-year period. It was extended again in 1902, with the addition that Chinese immigrants already in the United States had to register and obtain a certificate of residence or be deported.

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