Saga of Chinese Immigration

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a turning point in American history. It is, however, one which seldom receives anything more than a passing reference in most history books. The Act barred all Chinese from U.S. citizenship by naturalization, and specifically excluded Chinese laborers and their families from entering the United States. Immigration, based on race and class, was now an official part of American public policy. It opened the door to subsequent racially biased restrictions and outright exclusion of other immigrant groups.

SEPARATE LIVES, BROKEN DREAMS explores the deep and broad impact that Chinese Exclusion had on individual lives, families, and entire communities in America and China. As fears regarding America's economy and security ebb and flow through our national consciousness, public sentiment and politicians focus once again on new and existing immigrants. One hundred twenty years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, America continues to grapple with both its image and the stark reality of all that is encompassed by its descriptor, "the land of immigrants."

An Overview

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigration to America was influenced by both the "pull" of California's Gold Rush and the "push" created by China's impoverished conditions. Years of drought, floods, disease, and famine ravaged China, a country already burdened with over-population and internal instability. European and American exploits into the region further exacerbated China's economic, political, and social problems.

Chinese peasants, particularly in the rural Pearl River Delta area in the southeastern province of Guangdong, were desperate for relief. They began to migrate to urban centers in search of employment and survival. When this proved insufficient, the Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Region (e.g. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines). Word soon reached China that "Gum Saan," the "Gold Mountain" as the Chinese referred to America, was a land of opportunity for those seeking a better life.

The first large number of Chinese arriving in America in the mid-1850s, like many other immigrants to the new land, found no "gold mountain" from which instant wealth could be attained. However, America's expansion to the West and the economic boom of the Gold Rush era did provide particular employment possibilities for the Chinese. They quickly became an inexpensive but formidable work force for the construction of the western portion of the transcontinental rail system. They also played an important role in the development of the agricultural, fishing, and even manufacturing industries of the Western States.

By the early 1870s, the Gold Rush "boom" had turned into a "bust." Tens of thousands of East Coast laborers, traveling westward on the very railroad system built by the Chinese, faced an economy in decline and fierce competition for jobs. The Chinese, once welcomed for their work ethic and valuable contribution to the work force, were now blamed for lowering wages, employment opportunities, and working conditions of all laborers.

Long-held racial, cultural, and religious prejudices were unleashed on the so-called "heathen Chinee." Inclined to maintain the customs, rituals, beliefs, and lifestyle of their homeland, the Chinese were accused of being unable or unwilling to assimilate into American society. Public sentiment and organized labor began to advocate for restrictions on the activities of Chinese and changes in the immigration laws. In response, politicians eventually passed over 600 ordinances and laws against Asians throughout the United States. They ranged from local ordinances intent on petty harassment, to extremely mean-spirited and harmful state laws aimed at the very livelihood and civil rights of Chinese in America. Anti-Chinese sentiment escalated into violence, whereby Chinese residents and laborers were forcibly evicted from towns and work camps. In some cases, the Chinese were attacked and killed.

However, the Chinese community in America did not tolerate discrimination and abuse without protest. They organized and raised funds to hire expert legal representation to challenge the system in local, state, and Supreme Courts. Far from being passive victims, the Chinese in America won many precedent-setting cases, and in some instances, even reparations for damages. As local ordinances and state laws failed to curtail the activities and immigration of the Chinese, the move to restrict and exclude Chinese immigrants moved to a national platform.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally passed by Congress in 1880, and signed into law by President Arthur on May 5, 1882. It suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years. In 1892, and again in 1902, it was extended for additional ten-year periods each. In 1904, the act was amended to run perpetually. For the first time in American history, immigration into the United States was denied on the basis of race and class. Chinese now joined the ranks of imbeciles, paupers, prostitutes, and felons as official "undesirables."

To maintain important trade relations with China, select classifications of Chinese were still permitted to enter the United States. Specifically, the Chinese allowed into the United States were travelers, merchants, diplomats (including their families and servants), students, and teachers. Numerous amendments later attempted to clarify certain provisions, close loopholes, and strengthen the overall restrictions introduced by the Act. Though subsequent legislation provided for the entry of the wives and families of Chinese merchants, it was clear that new Chinese immigrants of the laboring class and their family members would no longer be allowed in the United States.

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