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Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

Young Aristocrats, Pictures of Old Chinatown, by Arnold Genthe, 1908.
"Young Aristocrats," Pictures of Old Chinatown, by
Arnold Genthe, 1908.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. It was enacted in response to economic fears, especially on the West Coast, where native-born Americans attributed unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior. The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law on May 6, 1882, by President Chester A. Arthur, effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens. Through the Geary Act of 1892, the law was extended for another ten years before becoming permanent in 1902.

After the Gold Rush of 1849, the Chinese were drawn to the West Coast as a center of economic opportunity where, for example, they helped build the first transcontinental railroad by working on the Central Pacific from 1864 to 1869. The Chinese Exclusion Act foreshadowed the immigration-restriction acts of the 1920s, culminating in the National Origins Act of 1929, which capped overall immigration to the United States at 150,000 per year and barred Asian immigration.

The law was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 during World War II, when China was an ally in the war against imperial Japan. Nevertheless, the 1943 act still allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year, reflecting persisting prejudice against the Chinese in American immigration policy. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated previous national-origins policy, that large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States was allowed to begin again after a hiatus of over 80 years.

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Chinese Exclusion Act

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