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By Casey Green

When President Trump signed his executive order limiting immigration from seven Middle Eastern nations and gave preference to Christian immigrants, he participated in a longstanding American tradition: banning specific ethnic or religious groups from entering the United States.

On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. The Act banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States for a period of ten years. It made exceptions only for Chinese diplomats and their personal household staff. The ban came as the result of thirty years of increasing distrust of the Chinese by white Americans.

After the discovery of gold in California in 1849, Chinese men began migrating to the West Coast. Fleeing the internal disruption of a collapsing Qing dynasty, the lure of a better life in the gold fields attracted many suffering Chinese commoners. Once the gold rush petered out, American miners felt threatened by their foreign competition. In 1850 and 1852 the California State legislature passed the Foreign Miners Tax charging the Chinese and other foreigners twenty dollars a month to mine (the equivalent of about $585 today). Dennis Kearney, a California labor leader, explained that the Chinese took jobs from Americans and enriched the upper classes at the expense of the working man. (Any of this sound familiar?) He wrote that elites imported Chinese labors “here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.”


Note the Chinese man’s long hair. He’s holding a washboard and a bag of money, suggesting he runs a laundry and is stealing from Americans. American ingenuity, in the form of a steam-powered washing machine–dressed as Uncle Sam–is chasing him back to China. 

Forced out of the gold fields and blocked in most other occupations by white Americans, Chinese immigrants shifted their labor to more traditionally feminine work, like laundry. While fulfilling a labor need, the laundries distanced the Chinese men from their white neighbors. In addition to doing women’s work, Chinese men often kept their hair long–typically braided down their backs. Further, their traditional garb featured long tunics over pants, which Americans believed look like dresses. Through their work and their appearance, the Chinese confused American gender norms. This combination of economic threat and the failure of Chinese immigrants to live up to American ideas of masculinity made them an easy target for working class white Americans. Kearney attacked Chinese laborers as a threat to the American family and the American way of life: “The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper. Will he get a place for his oldest boy? He can not. His girl? Why, the Chinaman is in her place too! Every door is closed. He can only go to crime or suicide, his wife and daughter to prostitution, and his boys to hoodlumism and the penitentiary.”

This demonization of Chinese immigrants foreshadowed the greater immigration restrictions that would follow in the early 20th century. The ban on Chinese immigration remained in effect until 1943. As a concession to the Chinese—who were American allies against the Japanese—the 1943 Magnussen Act allowed for 105 ethnic Chinese to enter the United States each year. This restriction remained in place until the Immigration Act of 1965 permanently removed the quota.



Text of Chinese Exclusion Act https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=47&page=transcript

Young, Elliott. Alien Nation : Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Casey Green @caseylgreen09 is an instructor of history at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. She is completing her PhD in American History from the University of Connecticut. She studies the history of disability in the long 18th century in New England.