B. The Page Law
Up until this point, immigration exclusion was handled on a state level, with California leading the charge against Chinese immigration. This changed in 1875 when the federal government passed the first restrictive federal immigration statute: An Act Supplementary to the Acts in Relation to Immigration, also known as the Page Law. This law prohibited entry for Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian workers, prostitutes, and felons. Its goal was to end immigration of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women. The law required U.S. consular officials to examine all Asian immigrants at their port of departure to assess whether any immigrant had entered into a contract for lewd and immoral purposes. The focus on prostitution may have been essentially a smoke screen, using the rhetoric of morality as a way to avoid legal and political scrutiny. Through a ban on prostitution, the law aimed to prevent all Chinese women from immigrating to the United States. By using language about protecting marriage and sexual purity, the Page Law was able to achieve the otherwise prohibited exclusion of Chinese women.
Due to the widespread suspicion that all Chinese women were engaged in prostitution, the immigration of Chinese women became much more limited after the Page Law was enacted. From 1876 to 1882, the number of Chinese women entering the United States decreased 68 percent as compared to the previous seven years. Even the U.S. Consul to Hong Kong admitted that all women would ultimately be excluded based on a fear that they were prostitutes, remarking, [i] t is a useless and superfluous task for me to undertake to investigate the character of female emigrants and to grant them passports which are treated as nullities in San Francisco on the mere presumption that every Chinese woman is a prostitute. Here, the government itself admitted that it treated all Chinese women as prostitutes, presuming they were inadmissible unless they could prove otherwise. This meant that even though the laws were facially narrowly tailored to exclude only prostitutes, they were applied in an overly broad manner in such a way that all Chinese women were essentially inadmissible.
As a result of the perception that all Chinese women were prostitutes, even married women were suspect. Thus, entry to the United States was only possible after a subjective determination by a U.S. consular official or immigration officer that the female immigrant had not come for lewd or immoral purposes. Not even proof of a marriage was enough, in and of itself, to convince authorities that a Chinese woman was not a prostitute. This led to concerns that marriages between Chinese women and Chinese American men were used as a cover-up for prostitution. The questioning of the validity of marriages is still present in immigration law today, as evidenced by the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments.
After passage of the Page Law, anti-Chinese forces continued to advocate for an end to cheap Chinese labor. As discussed earlier, Congress set up the 1876 Joint Special Committee to investigate the effects of Chinese immigration. As a result of the committee's findings, President Hayes appointed a commission to renegotiate the 1868 Burlington Treaty, which called for open and unrestricted borders between the United States and China. A dramatic shift occurred in 1880, when the Burlingame Treaty was renegotiated to allow the United States to limit immigration of Chinese laborers whose entry would affect American interests or endanger the good order of the country. Even though the United States had already begun excluding Chinese immigrants with the passage of the Page Law in 1875, the renegotiation of the Burlingame Treaty shows that the anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong in the United States that the government felt the need to amend its international agreement with China.