Chinese Exclusion Act

Beginning with the push to restrict Chinese immigration in the 19th century, including the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and other nativist policies enacted against Chinese immigrants have paved the way for the restriction and exclusion of other immigrant groups. The policies enacted in the 19th and early 20th century, including the creation of the Bureau of Immigration laid the foundation for our modern immigration system. Even more significant, these laws have shaped the very nature of race and racial identity in the United States. This first successful attempt at exclusion coincided with America’s nation building and imperial aspirations. The xenophobic attitudes, fear mongering and prejudices expressed toward the Chinese were later extended to other immigrant groups and institutionalized.

Roger Daniels relates some early attitudes against Chinese immigration, including this quote by Henry Williams of Oregon, speaking about potential naturalization, [that this would give] “millions of heathens and pagans power to control our institutions”. This fear of a potential Chinese takeover, especially in the West, influenced the federal government to enact restrictions to protect native workers, and those deemed to be “true Americans”, primarily those from Northern European countries who had already assimilated.[1] Two of our nation’s immigration processing facilities, Ellis Island and Angel Island, were both established to “isolate and impede” immigration of Chinese.[2] This was accomplished through policies which included extended verbal and medical examinations, payment of fees, a verification of status through documentation and for unsatisfactory results, prolonged detention and deportation. These policies which were made supported citizens and politicians which xenophobic attitudes, made it possible for restrictions to be expanded.

An early proposal to prevent Chinese entry, the literacy test, received the political backing it needed and was enacted in the Immigration Act of 1917.[3] The later 1924 Immigration Act has been called “the triumph of nativism” by some historians for its success with Asian exclusion and expansion of restrictions with regard to immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.[4] As the immigration service was expanded and institutionalized, a study of immigration was conducted by the federal government between 1907-1910 which was used to conclude (falsely) that “immigrants coming to America, chiefly form Eastern and Southern Europe, were inferior in education, ability and genetic makeup to more of those who had come previously.”[5] The same racist attitudes leveled at the Chinese were carried over to “undesirable” European immigrants.

The experiences of Mexican immigrants were slightly different. Because they were viewed as vital agricultural work force who would “go home” at the end of the season, there was less fear of a “takeover”. However, beginning in 1924, visas and photographs were required for all immigrants as well as a $9 head tax and $9 visa fee, a total of $18.[6] While this wasn’t too much of a hardship for those immigrating from China or Europe, Mexican immigrants were used to casually crossing back and forth across the border.[7] Through the restrictions imposed at the borders and ports, America was solidifying it’s identity as a nation and establishing the racial and nativist attitudes which still exist to this day and are institutionalized in our immigration, legal and penal systems. Through the success achieved by those who first promoted these xenophobic attitudes against Chinese immigrants, these same attitudes, policies and restrictions were extended to subsequent groups of immigrants and institutionalized as part of the character of America.



Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill and London: The University of Chapel Hill Press, 2003.

[1] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 15.

[2] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 25.

[3] Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of Chapel Hill Press, 2003), 39.

[4] Lee, At America’s Gates, 11.

[5] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 45.

[6] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 53.

[7] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 53.