Chinese exclusion, policy of prohibiting immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States; initiated in 1882. From the time of the U.S. acquisition of California (1848) there had been a large influx of Chinese laborers to the Pacific coast. They were encouraged to emigrate because of the need for cheap labor, and were employed largely in the building of transcontinental railroads. By 1867 there were some 50,000 Chinese in California, most of them manual laborers. Their numbers continued to increase after the conclusion in 1868 of the Burlingame Treaty with China, which guaranteed the right of Chinese immigration; it did not, however, grant the right of naturalization. In the following decades a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment arose in California, partly because the growing American labor force had to compete with cheap Chinese labor and partly because many Americans were opposed to further immigration by what they considered to be an inferior people. In 1877 anti-Chinese riots occurred in San Francisco, and in the three decades that followed further riots, roundups, and violent expulsions of Chinese immigrants occurred in communities throughout the West.
Legislative efforts were made to ban Chinese immigration, and in 1879 Congress passed a bill to that effect. It was vetoed, however, by President Hayes on the grounds that it violated the Burlingame Treaty. In 1880 a new treaty with China was concluded; it allowed the United States to regulate, limit, or suspend the entry of Chinese labor, but not to prohibit it. In 1882, however, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. As was the case with previous discriminatory acts, this legislation was met by protests from Chinese residents, and for the next decade more than 7,000 lawsuits were filed, the majority of which were won by the Chinese litigants. Some of the later acts (1888 and 1892, which required that Chinese immigrants carry an identity card or face deportation) were flat violations of the 1880 treaty. A new treaty was signed in 1894 by which China agreed to the exclusion of Chinese laborers for 10 years. When that period expired, Congress continued the exclusion unilaterally until the immigration law of 1924 excluded, in effect, all Asians. In 1943 the acts were repealed when a law was signed setting an annual immigration quota of 105 and extending citizenship privileges to Chinese immigrants. The quota was abolished in 1965.
See R. D. McKenzie, Oriental Exclusion (1928); S. C. Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant (1969); B. L. Sung, The Story of the Chinese in America (1971); J. Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans (2007).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.