Navigating the Law: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Trials of a Journey Home

Today’s post comes from Andrew Salyer, an archives technician at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

The U.S. Congress passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, though the conditions its passage sought to remediate had been brewing as early as the 1850s. From the 1850s to the 1880s, Chinese workers migrated to the United States and labored in gold mines, built railroads, worked on farms and in factories, and more. 

As the numbers of Chinese workers increased, labor leaders and political figures quickly capitalized on and sensationalized cultural differences and economic frictions. Political cartoons depicting Chinese men as both pitiable innocents and depraved foreigners appeared commonly in newspapers, and contemporary authors and politicians argued that further admission of Chinese laborers and immigrants would lower the cultural and moral standards of American society. Popular nativist fervor, coupled with financial tensions caused by multiple economic recessions and depressions, further stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, which led to several state and federal laws limiting Chinese immigration and activities. 

The Page Act of 1875 and the Fifteen Passenger Bill of 1879, among others, provided the legal framework for the Chinese Exclusion Act, which President Rutherford B. Hayes signed into law on May 6, 1882. The act instituted a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration to the United States, with very few exceptions. 

The National Archives at Philadelphia holds the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files that were maintained by the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) District Four, headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These individual case files were created to assist in the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion laws, and to verify that the person attempting to enter or reenter the United States was doing so lawfully. All of these case files have been digitized and are available in the National Archives Catalog

Skilled professionals, mainly those working within the mercantile trades or other traditionally white-collar forms of employment, constituted an exception to the prohibited classes described in the act. A merchant, for example, could, under extreme scrutiny by immigration officials, freely travel to and from the Chinese mainland for approved purposes, such as can be seen in the case of Mr. Yee Jack, a bookkeeper of the Quong On Wah Yee Kee Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

As a bookkeeper, Yee Jack was excluded from the specific definition of “laborer” as defined by the authors of the Chinese Exclusion Act. His professional dealings within his community would, in the course of investigation by the officiating INS Inspector (in this case a Mr. W. W. Sibray), require evident testimony from a minimum of two individuals meeting the legal definition of “white” as understood by lawmakers of the era. Their testimonies would be compared with that of the individual seeking to travel. Any inconsistencies in detail or narrative conflicts would serve as grounds for either further investigation or outright denial of passage.

Because the Page Act of 1875 specifically barred the entry of unaccompanied Chinese women, inspectors paid special attention to verify the marital status of petitioners if they were traveling accompanied by their spouse. In many instances, a couple would have wedded outside of the United States or in an unsanctioned ceremony within the country and so would not necessarily be able to produce verifiable documentation that a marriage had taken place. As a result, a great deal of investigative energy was expended in verifying any claimed relationships, as can be seen in the further testimony of Yee Jack. 

Ultimately, the fate of an individual’s safe passage relied on the recommendation of the inspector handling their case. INS investigators had wide discretion, which surely resulted in unfair denial of passage for some Chinese travelers. As can be seen in his case file, Yee Jack enjoyed a good relationship with his investigator. The Quong On Wah Yee Kee Company was an established and well respected entity in the regional mercantile trade, and Inspector Sibray had enjoyed positive interactions with Yee Jack for four years prior to his petition. There seemed to be little hesitation in his ultimate recommendation of approval for Yee Jack’s travel, which Inspector Sibray officially filed on August 25, 1908.

Yee Jack returned from his trip to China on January 7, 1911. His return was duly reported by the Seattle Commissioner of Immigration and makes no mention of any difficulties regarding legal reentry. 

Congress renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892 for 10 years in the Geary Act, and later extended the Exclusion Act indefinitely. Restrictions on immigration from mainland China were kept in place until Congress passed the Magnuson Act of 1943, which kept in place a strict annual quota of new visa entries. Nine years later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 abolished direct racial barriers of entry enshrined in law and kicked off a flurry of further reforms in the decades to come.

Interested in learning more about the Chinese Exclusion Act? Check out some additional resources below:

2 thoughts on “Navigating the Law: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Trials of a Journey Home

  1. Fascinating history, thank-you. Your focus on Mr. Jack’s experience gives the reader a unique perspective and brings the down to scale.

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