May-6 (Pt 1): US Embraces Xenophobia with Chinese Exclusion Act


President Arthur Signs Chinese Exclusion Act

On this day President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers.  (President Hayes had vetoed similar legislation in 1878). The Act was denounced by its opponents as “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination”.

Chinese immigration spiked during the California Gold Rush and building of the transcontinental railroad, but was still minuscule (by 1880 there were only 105,465 Chinese in the U.S. out of a population of 50 million).   Anti-Chinese fervor was particularly strong in California which, as early as 1858, had passed a low making it illegal for any person “of the Chinese or Mongolian races” to enter the state (although this was later struck down by the State Supreme Court).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was initially intended to last for ten years, but was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902.  As a result, by 1940 the U.S. Chinese population remained virtually unchanged at 106,334 out of 132 million.

The Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943, but immigration was still Large-scale105 Chinese immigrants per year. Large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.   At that time, President Johnson explained:

This system violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country. Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.

As of the 2010 United States Census, there are more than 3.3 million Chinese in the United States, about 1% of the total population. They are the fastest growing segment of U.S. immigration, since in 2012 ethnic Chinese from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia surpassed Hispanic and Latino immigration.

Year Total U.S. population Of Chinese origin Percentage
1940 132,164,569 106,334 0.08%
1950 151,325,798 150,005 0.10%
1960 179,323,175 237,292 0.13%
1970 203,302,031 436,062 0.21%
1980 226,542,199 812,178 0.36%
1990 248,709,873 1,645,472 0.66%
2000 281,421,906 2,432,585 0.86%
2010 308,745,538 3,794,673 1.23%

In 2011 and 2012, the Senate and House passed resolutions that:

(1) acknowledges that this framework of anti-Chinese legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all persons are created equal;

(2) acknowledges that this pattern of anti-Chinese legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, is incompatible with the spirit of the United States Constitution;

(3) deeply regrets passing six decades of legislation directly targeting the Chinese people for physical and political exclusion and the wrongs committed against Chinese and American citizens of Chinese descent who suffered under these discriminatory laws; and

(4) reaffirms its commitment to preserving the same civil rights and constitutional protections for people of Chinese or other Asian descent in the United States accorded to all others, regardless of their race or ethnicity.


For more information see Chinese Historical Society of America – Remembering 1882: Fighting for Civil Rights in the Shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act.



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