The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Under the Page Act it was still possible for Chinese to immigrate to the United States, although extremely difficult in most cases. One exception was bribes. Enforcement of the law at ports of entry was at the time in the hands of state or local officials, and it was possible, if one had succeeded in getting his wife to the port of entry, to get her past the last barrier through the use of a bribe. Many port officials demanded a payment even when all entry papers were in order, simply because they could. Once in California, the chief place of immigration by the Chinese, they faced racial prejudice and often personal violence.
Chinese workers provided cheap labor, which caused resentment among the white labor force which was forced to either keep their own wages lower or find other work. The Chinese population, thanks to the Page Act and the cost of bringing families from China before the Page Act was passed, was for the most part male, and thus did not use government facilities such as schools and hospitals. In the 1870s Chinese labor accounted for 23% California’s workforce. In 1879 California adopted a new constitution, which reserved to the state the right to determine who may live within its boundaries, and banned corporations and all levels of government from employing Chinese.
The Chinese Exclusion Act defined those to be excluded as “skilled and unskilled laborers”. It also excluded those involved in the mining industry. Defining what constituted a skilled laborer was up to the authorities who would decide who would be admitted. A professor of mathematics could be defined as an unskilled laborer, or as a skilled laborer. Essentially the Chinese Exclusion Act closed the United States to Chinese immigration, as it was intended, and was originally to last for ten years. When its expiration date neared it was extended for another ten years, and when that date came up it was made permanent in 1902.
The act also required Chinese already in the United States that left for any reason to apply for reentry, a permission not guaranteed. It also established all Chinese living in the United States as permanent aliens, removing any path to citizenship, and extended its provisions to ethnic Chinese who had been born in the United States. In 1888 the law was amended denying Chinese who left the United States reentry under any conditions, except those protected by diplomatic missions. The following year the Supreme Court affirmed the Act’s constitutional standing. Petitions to the courts to overturn decisions of immigration officials by Chinese were made illegal by an act of Congress and that law too was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The United States government worked with the government in Canada to pass a similar law closing Canada to Chinese immigration, in effect securing the US northern border from illegal Chinese immigration across its long and thinly guarded line. The Canadian solution was the imposition of a head tax which was prohibitive in cost. Mexico, on the other hand, welcomed the Chinese as an addition to its labor force, and the United States began for the first time an intensive patrol of the Mexican border, as much to keep out Chinese hoping to join their families in the United States as to monitor Mexican immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in force until 1943.