The Chinese Exclusion Act

Wednesday, 10 October 2012 14:46

In 1882 Congress overwhelmingly passed and President Chester Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act. About the only opposition to the bill came from Senator George

Hoar (MA) who invoked the “Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man” doctrine. California Democrats were among the leaders in the movement to pass this the nations first legislation restricting immigration and certainly one of its most overtly racist. It is not one of the bright spots in US history.



In the late 19th century one of the organizations that was most prominent in the fight to exclude Chinese workers was the American Federation of Labor as can be seen from the attached pamphlet cover. To understand why this was true one has to understand the labor milleiu in the western US in the late 1800's. There was a surplus of labor in the mines and as a result wages were extremely low. Unions were organized to demand higher wages and strikes ensued. The mine owners brought in Chinese laborers to break the strikes. It resulted in racism, violence, death and legislation


It is easy to see, from its title, that the Chinese Exclusion Act is racist. It is not quite as easy to see that the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 is just as racist. Because of this law, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary Mexican citizen who has no close relatives in the USA cannot legally move here. In the words of Angelica Salas of CHIRLA “You say to get in line. But there isn't a line to get into.” The current immigration law is not titled the Mexican Exclusion Act but it has the same racist effect as it predecessor of 130 years ago. Its bureaucratic language hides the fact that it is excluding people based on where they were born. In most of the world where you were born correlates with your race. Next week we'll explore the idea of ending “birthism” the way we are attempting to end racism and sexism.


Much of the information for the article was drawn from Dividing Lines by Daniel J Tichenor (2002, Princeton University Press)