Congress expresses ‘regret’ for racist laws inflicted on Chinese Americans


More than 130 years after Congress passed the first federal law that explicitly singled out a specific ethnic group for discrimination, the House of Representatives expressed “regret” for a series of laws that blocked the Chinese from immigrating to the United States and denied them the legal right to become naturalized U.S. citizens. 

Certificate of residence required for Chinese laborers under the Chinese Exclusion Act. SOURCE: National Archives

House Resolution 683 – passed by the House yesterday with bipartisan support – stated that “House of Representatives regrets the passage of legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States because of their ethnicity.” The bill’s chief sponsor was Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the first Chinese-American woman to serve in Congress.

“It is an expression that discrimination has no place in our society and that the promise of equality is available to all,” said Chu. “It is for my grandfather and for all Chinese-Americans who were told for six decades by the U.S. government that the land of the free wasn’t open to them that we must pass this resolution. We must finally and formally acknowledge these ugly laws that were incompatible with America’s founding principles.”

The Senate unanimously approved a similar measure – S. Res. 201 – sponsored by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in October 2011.

Congress’ history of passing racist laws targeting the ethnic Chinese 

Between 1882 and 1943, Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans suffered from government-sanctioned discrimination as Congress passed a series of laws that not only severely restricted their travel and immigration opportunities but also denied their right to become naturalized American citizens.

The development of western United States was made possible by the work of Chinese laborers, who were recruited to build and complete the first transcontinental railway connecting eastern and western coasts of the United States after most white laborers quit the railway construction to mine for silver in Nevada in the mid-1860s.

In addition, the Chinese laborers were also responsible for the successful construction of 1,000-plus miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which still supplies and transports about one-third of California’s water supply. Without the Delta levees, agriculture development and the subsequent population boom in California would not have been possible. (Despite the recent economic downturn, the Golden State still ranks as one of the top 10 largest economies in the world.)

“The Chinese were used as cheap labor to do the most dangerous work: laying the tracks of our transcontinental railway and building the California Delta levees. They strengthened our nation’s infrastructures only to be persecuted when their labor was seen as competition and when the dirtiest work was done,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). 

As the U.S. economy began to deteriorate in the 1870s, the Chinese found themselves cast as convenient scapegoats for politicians, who needed to blame someone else for the high unemployment and declining wages plaguing the country.

“By the time 1882 came around, members of Congress were competing with each other to get the most discriminatory law passed and routinely made speeches on the House floor against the so-called ‘Mongolian horde’,” Chu noted in her floor statement.   

Labeling the Chinese as an “invading race” and “aliens with sordid and un-republican habits”, lawmakers in the House of Representatives passed the Chinese Exclusion Act on April 17,1882. The law prohibited any ethnic Chinese individuals from immigrating to the United States for 10 years and denied them the right to ever become U.S. citizens.

“The effects of this act produced deep scars on the Chinese-American community. Families were split apart permanently. Without the ability to naturalize as citizens and to vote, the community was disenfranchised,” said Chu.

It turned out that the Chinese Exclusion Act was only the beginning of decades of congressionally-sanctioned racism and discrimination against the Chinese.

“Because this law was validated by leaders in our nation, it gave credence to the underlying notion that certain groups did not deserve fair treatment in our nation,” said Del. Eni Faleomayaega (D-American Samoa).“The policy sent a clear message that Chinese immigrants were not qualified for the American dream.”

As a result, Congress proceeded with a series of “hateful” laws targeted against the Chinese. They include:

  • An expansion of the Chinese Exclusion to “all persons of Chinese descent” from immigrating to the United States, even those who are from Hong Kong and the Philippines. This law was passed in 1884.
  • The Scott Act of 1888, which prohibited any Chinese from re-entering the United States, even if they are permanent U.S. residents. “This prevented approximately 20,000 legal U.S. residents who had gone abroad, including 600 on ships literally en route back to the United States, from returning to their families or their homes,” Chu said. This law separated many Chinese families, some permanently.
  • The Geary Act of 1892 renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years. The Geary Act also allowed any Chinese individual, even those who were born on U.S. soil, to be deported if they did not carry their “certificate of residence” at all times. The only way for a Chinese person to avoid deportation was through the “testimony of ‘at least one credible white witness.'” Chu said her grandfather, who had been in the United States legally since 1904, “was forced to register and carry a certificate of residence at all times for almost 40 years or else be deported.” She added, “He could only be saved if a white person vouched for him.” In addition, the Geary Act denied Chinese individuals release on bail even after they have challenged their imprisonment by applying for a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, the Geary Act singled out the Chinese for indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial. Other non-Chinese immigrants were not subject to this law.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent by Congress in 1904.

It wasn’t until World War II that the United States was forced to change its anti-Chinese laws. The U.S. badly needed the Chinese as an ally in the Pacific. During the war, “enemy forces used the Chinese exclusion legislation passed in Congress as evidence of anti-Chinese attitudes in the United States.” Under pressure, the Magnuson Act was passed by Congress in 1943, repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act. The bill, which also allowed Chinese-Americans to finally obtain U.S. citizenship, was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Even then, the new law only allowed 105 Chinese immigrants per year, a much lower quota than immigrant quotas from other countries and regions of the world,” Faleomayaega pointed out. 

The Chinese had to wait another two decades before they were allowed to immigrate to the United States when the Immigration Act of 1965 passed Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

Acknowledgement of past injustices

The Congressional formal acknowledgement of the past injustices inflicted on Chinese-Americans finally came as Asian-Americans are becoming the “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States”, according to a Pew Research Center report. The report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans”, showed that Chinese-Americans make up the largest block – 23% – of the Asian-American population in the United States.

Even though a century ago, most Chinese in the United States were unskilled laborers who endured decades of discrimination, the more recent Chinese immigrants, who entered the country following the 1965 Immigration Act, have been able to outperform the average U.S. population in both higher education attainment and median income. They, along with other Asian-American groups, have made great contributions to American society and economy, and their contributions would not have been possible had the U.S. continued its racist immigration policies and discriminatory laws.

“While our nation has come a long ways since [Chinese Exclusion Act] was enacted 130 years ago, let us continually be reminded in our diverse country to uphold the founding principle of our nation – that all men and women are to be treated equally and fairly under the law,” said Faleomayaega. 


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