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The Chinese Exclusion Act


The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States in 1882. It was the first major legislation restricting immigration in the US. The bill, passed on May 6th, stated that, beginning ninety days after the passing of the act, Chinese labor immigration was to be suspended for ten years. Other Chinese exclusion acts were passed in 1892, 1902, and 1904 and were followed by legislation restricting other ethnic immigrant groups.

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During the 1800's, many Chinese immigrants had settled in California. In the 1860's their labor was used on the first transcontinental railroad. In fact, two-thirds of the railroad's laborers were Chinese. Although Chinese labor on the railroad was a big success and greatly appreciated by many Americans.  Others, particularly in California where the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants was located, felt that the Chinese “coolies” (the name given to laborers from Asia) were stifling job opportunities for Americans. However, most of these “Americans” had also immigrated to the US years earlier.

Chinese immigrants had become victims of criticism and racism because of their way of life. Asian culture is one in which families are close-knit and members have a great bond and loyalty to one another. Chinese food, dress, religion, etc. was very different from the European-American cultures that surrounded them. The Chinese in California stayed very close together in large communities to preserve this culture. It upset many Californians that the Chinese did not seem to assimilate, or integrate, into American culture upon becoming American citizens. Some complained that because of this, the Chinese were tainting American purity and did not have the country's best interests in mind.

Based on these prejudices and the fear of Chinese domination of labor, Californians and other American laborers urged the government to take action. They pushed legislation through Congress. The first time through, the Chinese Exclusion bill was vetoed by President Chester A. Arthur due to the length of the exclusion. Congress decided to shorten the exclusion period from twenty to ten years and on May 6, 1882, after being passed in the House and the Senate, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

This Act was the first of its kind. Never before had the US restricted immigration for a specific ethnic group. Much more legislation of this kind was to come and would include other immigrants of Asian descent (Japanese and Korean). In 1882, the United States began closing its doors and would continue to do so for a long time.


Address to the House of Representatives. http://cprr.org/Museum/Chinese.html 

Gyory, Andrew, Closing the Gate (Chapel Hill, SC; The University of North Carolina Press, 1998)

Researched and Written by:

Jenny Williams

HIST 2260: Modern World

February 17, 2004

Copyright 2020 by David Koeller. All rights reserved.

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