Monday, September 16, 2019

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Article Index

C. The Chinese Exclusion Act

Building upon the changes to the Burlingame Treaty, the anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Unlike the earlier Page Law, the Exclusion Act restricted immigration based on a person's race and occupation, without regard to the morality of their conduct. The Act excluded all laborers arriving from China, except those that had resided in the United States since 1880. The Act made exceptions for merchants, students, teachers, and tourists. In addition, the Act barred any state or federal court from allowing a Chinese person to naturalize as a citizen of the United States. Ultimately, the Chinese Exclusion Act was successful in reducing Chinese immigration to the United States.

The Exclusion Act led to particular complications for Chinese immigrant women. Here again, their marriages came under scrutiny by government officials. Because women's exclusion under the Act was directly linked to their marital status, immigration officials and courts scrutinized the validity of Chinese women's marriages. Often, Western marriage norms based on notions of informed consent, free choice, monogamy, and love dictated the validity of these marriages. At least two Chinese marriages were concluded to be invalid based on these norms. In one marriage, there was a large age gap between husband and wife, which was considered improper by Western standards, and in another case the court considered whether a marriage between spouses who had never met could be valid, and ultimately decided such a marriage was invalid.

Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese women took on the same status as their husbands, regardless of their own occupation. Thus, the wife of a Chinese laborer took on laborer status, even though she herself was not a laborer, and therefore she was excluded from entry without the proper certificate. Officials were more likely to believe that a Chinese woman was a merchant's wife, and therefore not excluded by the Exclusion Act, if she possessed fine clothing, a respectable manner, and, especially bound feet. Just as with the earlier Page Law, women's conduct and appearance were used as proof of their status as wives of merchants, wives of laborers, or prostitutes.

The Exclusion Act made no mention of U.S.-born Chinese women who had left the country and attempted to re-enter. Therefore, immigration officers and courts had to determine how to approach their requests to enter the country. Treatment of such women was inconsistent and became increasingly less favorable. In one case, two U.S.-born Chinese women were denied re-entry to the United States by immigration officials, but were subsequently allowed entry into the country by courts. However, in later years, Chinese women who claimed U.S. birth did not fare as well. Many were detained and denied entry into the United States because of discrepancies between their testimonies and witness statements during hearings. Similarly, wives of U.S.-born Chinese men were allowed to enter the United States because they took on the same status as their husbands, and thus should have been treated as American citizens. However, many women claiming to be the wives of U.S.-born Chinese men were turned away at the port for discrepancy in their testimony or as a result of having a dangerous disease. Again, women's claim of marriage was not always enough to overcome the presumption of marriage fraud.

To further prevent the entry of Chinese immigrants, the Chinese Exclusion Act was strengthened in 1884 to exclude laborers of Chinese decent coming from any foreign country, not just from China. The Scott Act of 1888 went even further by prohibiting entry of all Chinese laborers, including U.S. residents who had left the country. This prevented Chinese men already residing in the United States from going to China to marry or to have children with their wives living in China. That same year, amendments to the Chinese Exclusion Act allowed only teachers, students, merchants, and travelers to enter the United States. The Exclusion Act was renewed several times and then extended indefinitely, but it was ultimately repealed in 1943. This proliferation of legislation in the late 1800s and early 1900s shows the furor with which the United States sought to exclude Chinese immigrants.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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