How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: The Chinese Exclusion Act

As promised, here is the start of my historical examination of immigration rule changes, and we begin with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For those interested in the text of the act itself it can be found here.

For a little background, the first restriction on immigration to the US was actually the Page Act of 1875. This act too focused on Asian immigrants attempting to limit people being brought over for forced labor or prostitution. In practice that latter provision was a significant limiting factor on Chinese women coming to the United States, less because of most emigrating Chinese women actually being prostitutes than officials being overly skeptical towards claims of virtue. This association of the Chinese with crime was one of the major arguments used by anti-Chinese restrictionists in the years leading up to the exclusion act’s passage and parallels modern arguments about immigrant criminality. To explore this (and other major restrictionist arguments) the internet has made easily accessible wonderful resources such as arguments made before the California State Senate (the state with the highest Chinese population) by State Senator Creed Haymond. On page 4 he argues:

The State of California has a population variously estimated at from seven hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand, of which one hundred twenty-five thousand are Chinese…The evidence demonstrates beyond cavil that nearly the entire immigration comes from the lowest orders of the Chinese people, and mainly those having no homes or occupations on the land, but living on boats on the rivers, especially those in the vicinity of Canton.

This class of the people, according to the castes into which Chinese society is divided, are virtually pariahs—the dregs of the population. None of them are  admitted into any of the privileges of the orders ranking above them. And while rudimentary education is encouraged, and even enforced among the masses of the people, the fishermen and those living on the waters and harbors of China are excluded by the rigid and hoary constitutions of caster from participation in such advantages.

It would seem to be a necessary consequence, flowing from this class of immigration, that a large proportion of criminals should be found among it; and this deduction is abundantly sustained by the facts before us, for of five hundred and forty-five of the foreign criminals in our State Prison, one hundred and ninety-eight are Chinese—nearly two-fifths of the whole—while our jails and reformatories swarm with the lower grade of malefactors.

(Emphasis mine).

To start, let’s put that incarceration rate in perspective. That’s 198 out of 125,000 Chinese people in state prisons, or a little less than .16% of the Chinese population in state prison, which is nearly a fifth of the modern US incarceration rate. The “swarms” of lower grade malefactors sadly has not been quantified for us nor has the Senator given any indication of the white incarceration rate. Finding the overall rate of the state prison population though, the Chinese rate slightly beats the overall California incarceration rate in the late 1870s (approximately 160 per 100,000 for the Chinese and in 1879 after the peak year of 1878 the overall rate was 175 out of 100,000). If the Chinese were a problem for the prisons, the rest of California’s residents didn’t seem to be doing much better. Indeed, when Senator Haymond accuses the Chinese of making up two-fifths of the foreign population, this isn’t an indictment of the Chinese population. According to Haymond’s own numbers, the Chinese in the late 19th century made up between 15.6% and 17.8% of the total California population. The total foreign-born population of California between 1870 and 1880 was between 38% and 34% of the California population. This means that the Chinese share of the California foreign-born population was between 41% and 52% of all foreign-born. The Chinese were thus actually less likely to go to prison than the foreign-born population as a whole. Haymond may have anticipated this some when he then argued this was an underestimate of Chinese criminality:

Our ignorance of the Chinese language, the utter want of comprehension by them of the crime of perjury, their systematic bribery, and intimidation of witnesses, and other methods of baffling judicial action all tend to weaken the authority of our laws and to paralyze the power of our Courts.

The idea of the Chinese exploiting the legal system of California to their advantage seems unlikely for several reasons. First, as Haymond himself later argues when talking about Chinese being unfair labor competition, the Chinese made low wages compared to their white counterparts. That a poorer section of the California populace is able to raise funds to make them disproportionately good at bribing people seems like a stretch. Furthermore there is evidence that the California justice system was if anything biased against the Chinese. The California Supreme Court Case The People of the State of California vs. George W. Hall for instance banned Chinese witnesses from testifying against white citizens. The criminal element issue was only part of a broader set of complaints, mostly focusing on the Chinese undercutting American wages.

These wage concerns come up in not only Senator Haymond’s arguments, but also among labor movement leaders in California. Denis Kearney of the California Worker’s Party described the problem with Chinese immigrants thusly:

To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him 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.

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.

Thus Chinese workers are not only blamed for causing crime themselves but also for causing crime among white settlers. Is this plausible? Well, California did have a high murder rate, but so did the entire western United States around this time despite the Chinese being heavily concentrated in California in particular. The Chinese as a particular cause of crime seems more doubtful given the high crime in non-Chinese influenced regions like the Kansas cattle towns or Denver (even during the construction of the transcontinental railroad the Chinese primarily worked on the western end from California with the Central Pacific Railroad rather than the Union Pacific that went through Kansas and Colorado, which mostly used the Irish). Meanwhile San Francisco, with its large Chinese population, had a much lower murder rate, nearly on par with relatively peaceful Oregon. However, George Borjas makes a modern argument in favor of this view with immigrants increasing black crime. This does give some support to Kearney’s claims, but modern studies of the effect of immigration on crime also show net decreases in crime rates because of immigration making the point weak at best. But  In addition, given that the Irish themselves were often accused of undercutting native workers’ wages, arguments about the harms of undercutting wages from an Irish immigrant seems a bit hypocritical.

Kearney however did not represent all of the labor movement at the time. He was directly opposed by labor leaders such as Joseph McDonell and B. E. G. Jewett. Both still opposed making labor prices fall and importing people from any other country for the purpose keep wages low, but both these men attacked Kearney’s focus on the Chinese, arguing it was exactly the same as arguments against Irish and other European immigrants. They do sometimes take their points too far, such as the idea that McDonell supported that Pennsylvania had conditions worse than even China to prove the Chinese did not cause poverty was assuredly oversold by the 1870s (given the United States’ 7 year longer life expectancy and over 6 time higher GDP per capita in 1879). However, their point that focusing on any particular race was misguided does also agree with a simple supply demand model. An increase of the supply of labor by the same from Ireland or China would both drag down wages (or the price of labor more generally if working conditions are also considered in that regard).

Yet the “Chinese-as-slave” argument was also popular outside the labor movement, with Senator Haymond in particular (page 6):

Even were it possible for the white laborer to maintain existence upon the wages paid to the Chinese, his condition nevertheless becomes that on an abject slave, for grinding poverty is absolute slavery.

I doubt the Chinese workers saw the wages they received as akin to slavery, otherwise why would they come at all? But the point here was not bemoaning the condition of the Chinese workers, the idea that tens of thousands of Chinese people would come for decades to a strange and often hostile land giving them less wages and opportunity than what they received at home being a questionable idea to say the least. Instead this was meant as an argument for native wage suppression. This variant of modern wage suppression argument were opposed at the time. For instance, critics of restricting Chinese immigration would note the wages in California tended to be high in general and that Chinese immigrants helped form new industries and lower costs of living (page 8). Of course, the senators making that argument may not have been compensating for the higher cost of living in California. Without real wage data, we can’t be sure that those higher nominal wages aren’t masking a lower standard of living. Such data has proven elusive for me to find for California in particular, however some indications of the broader effect of 19th century immigration on real wages is available. The much larger scale European migration to the United States did almost certainly contribute to the convergence of real wages between the United States and Europe. However, the doesn’t mean an absolute fall in real wages in the United States, which from the end of the US Civil War to the start of World War One in Europe, a time of large-scale immigration, managed to rise even among unskilled laborers where competition with immigrants would be the heaviest (interestingly real wages also rose in the years between Senator Haymond’s report and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act). Overall, modern estimates of the potential wage gains to natives lost from all immigration to the United States for the period from 1870 to 1910 is about 10% total (see table one at the end of the paper). This is rather close to the modern estimate of the short run effect of immigration on low skill native workers in the US by George Borjas, though with a less advanced economy labor the ability of low skill immigrants to substitute rather than compliment native labor would have been larger. Thus the fears promoted by modern arguments are even less credible than they were nearly 150 years ago (Edit for clarity and accuracy for original see BK’s comment below) . But the point being that if all immigration to the US in the 19th century was producing a low impact on potential real wage rates, and not even causing actual real wages to drop, the fears of restrictionists were definitively over sold, especially with regards to an immigrating group that was small compared to the droves of immigrants from Europe.

The final major argument was a cultural one. To this one we turn once again to Senator Haymond (pages 6 and 7):

The pious anticipations that the influence of Christianity upon the Chinese would be salutary have proved unsubstantial and vain…There are few, painfully few, professing Christians among them, but the evidence confirms us in asserting that with these the profession is dependent to a great extent upon its paying profit to the professor.

I might point out the First Amendment prohibiting the establishment of a national religion to this point, but I could also point out that sharing a religion didn’t prevent Americans from disagreeing on moral issues so fundamental as slavery. Disagreements among Christians not from Christians to non-Christians led to the civil war which should caution those believing Christianity could solve internal cultural disagreements. But Haymond continues:

Above and beyond these considerations, however, we believe, and the researches of those who have most attentively studied the Chinese character confirm us in the consideration, that the Chinese are incapable of adaptation to our institutions…there can be no hope that any contact with out people, however long continued, will ever conform them to our institutions, enable them to comprehend or appreciate our form of government, or to assume the duties or discharge the functions of citizens.

This is a testable proposition! And one that has been almost assuredly falsified by the passage of time. Asian Americans as a whole and Chinese Americans in particular have integrated well enough to do far better than average (and better than most white groups) in income. They also do better than average at education attainment, this despite university policies often discriminating against Asian American applicants relative to their academic success. One area where Haymond seems partly vindicated is the limited ability of Christianity to receive wide adoption among the Asian population of the US. Asian Americans are the least likely major ethnic group in the US to become Christian (with only 45% doing so, see page 40). If anything though this seems to also falsify the proposition that acceptance of Christianity is necessary for good integration with American society. So if we can now see that previous assumptions of no progress among immigrants in cultural integration have proven not only false, but that the group pointed out now does better in many ways than white Americans, shouldn’t we be skeptical of modern cultural arguments especially in the longer term?

Ultimately it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Chinese Exclusion Act was more a policy of knee-jerk racism than a carefully considered way to improve the country. Looking at the information then available and what we’ve learned over time either the primary arguments were simply wrong (as in crime and assimilation) or greatly over sold (as in wage suppression). American immigration restrictionism did not begin with particularly good reasoning. And from an universalist perspective, how many people could have avoided the great tragedies which struck China in the late 19th and 20th centuries by coming to the United States with open borders?

To be fair to these early restrictionists, precise data was often harder to come by and economics and population studies were not as advanced. But advances in those areas have not been kind to the arguments made by these early restrictions, arguments that we catalogue many modern versions of being used today.

Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

17 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: The Chinese Exclusion Act”

  1. Your quote about adapting to institutions left out the most damning parts. The bits you quoted seem like political externalities arguments, and you reply with education figures, which seem less relevant. But in the surrounding text Haymond claims:

    “the national intellect of China has become decrepit from sheer age” and says that the migrants have “never adapted…to our educational system.”

    Chinese populations in Asia have long had among the highest national IQ scores, and Chinese-Americans have excelled in IQ and education in later generations who did not face language barriers or early educational deprivation. He seemed to be working primarily from the economic backwardness of China in these accusations.

    “Thus in contrast to modern arguments, immigration would have had more negative impacts on native wages in the past than today.”

    Your link doesn’t actually identify anyone arguing that modern immigrants have a larger negative impact on native wages than past immigrant waves. It talks about the change in immigration source countries, the increase of the welfare state, the reduction in explicit assimilation programs, but there are no claims about increased effects on wages per immigrant.

    And open borders proposals involve much higher immigration than what occurred in the 1870-1910 period.

    “And from an universalist perspective, how many people could have avoided the great tragedies which struck China in the late 19th and 20th centuries by coming to the United States with open borders?”

    Not to mention the huge economic and fiscal benefits of a larger Chinese population in America, given that the Chinese-American population has excelled most other migrant groups in contributions to the economy and the public treasury.

    “To be fair to these early restrictionists, precise data was often harder to come by and economics and population studies were not as advanced. But advances in those areas have not been kind to the arguments made by these early restrictions, arguments that we catalogue many modern versions of being used today.”

    Richwine used the actual historical experience of multiple immigrant groups over generations to see that some converged to or exceeded American averages in education and income in later generations, while others did not. Mexican-Americans did not converge over 4 or 5 generations after an initial boost for kids raised in the U.S., while European and East Asian migrant groups rapidly converged or outperformed:

    That evidence seems to establish that unlimited non-selective immigration and naturalization from China would have been, and still would be, good for American natives over time, but it doesn’t establish the same about general open borders (the children of college graduates from diverse sources do all right in the U.S.).

    On the other hand, a program that admitted anyone who could qualify for enlistment in the U.S. military on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test would allow billions to come, drawn from every nationality, race, and creed, while clearly being a net gain for natives over time.

    1. An excellent comment as usual BK and your criticisms are well taken (indeed I’m probably going to have to edit the wording on that second quote). And you’re right this isn’t a slam dunk for completely open borders. While I’m still not convinced IQ tests (or their effective equivalents) are required for an open borders regime, I am glad you bring it up, though a closer analysis of that will have to wait for another post.

  2. This is great, I love getting the historical data so as to test various theories I have.

    One of my theories is that immigration restrictions arose as a side-effect of the welfare state. Milton Friedman supposedly said that you can’t simultaneously have open borders and a welfare state; it would be truer to say that you can’t have open borders and give immigrants full access to the welfare state, at least not if you’re a rich country in a mostly poor world. The historical hypothesis would turn this around, and say that once countries started establishing welfare states, they had to curtail open borders. Maybe we could call this “the national socialist hypothesis”: open borders were ended when welfare states became normative.

    This story does not particularly support the national socialist hypothesis, since immigration restrictions were getting started before there was a welfare state to speak of. But it is not really inconsistent with it, since this was a very small curtailment of immigration, compared with what followed in the era when the welfare state was becoming established. I look forward to future installments to test the national socialist hypothesis more thoroughly. The involvement of the labor movement in curtailing Chinese immigration is promising.

    In response to this:

    “One area where Haymond seems partly vindicated is the limited ability of Christianity to receive wide adoption among the Asian population of the US. Asian Americans are the least likely major ethnic group in the US to become Christian (with only 45% doing so, see page 40).”

    I have a different take. 45% of Asian Americans being Christian is indeed fewer than other ethnic groups, but I trust that is a much larger share than the share of Asians in Asia who are Christians, however the comparison might be made. And that seems to imply (though one would have to examine possible selection biases and whatnot) that, on balance, immigration to America increases the odds that someone will become a Christian, or in other words, that the cause of Christian evangelism is served by open borders. Since, for Christians, winning souls for Christ ought to be a top priority, this provides the basis for a powerful religious argument in favor of open borders.

    I find it interesting that some of the racial and national arguments made here are deplored today, yet immigration restrictions are far tighter. That makes me rather more sympathetic to the California restrictionists of the 19th century than for restrictionists today, who appear to me much less rational and/or much less ingenuous. Suppose that a society of Puritans burns witches because they believe certain women sold their souls to the devil in return for supernatural powers which they used to secretly torment their neighbors. A couple of generations later, it is no longer believed that anyone sells her soul to the devil in this way, but the Puritans’ grandchildren go on picking certain eccentric women and burning them, simply in deference to old customs. Who is more culpable, the Puritans or their grandchildren?

  3. The credit-ticket system had some serious faults. Most immigrants preferred using it over becoming indentured or contract laborers because it allowed them to choose their own employment. However, paying off the loans typically required months of labor. With interest and fees, loans of forty dollars could easily rise as high as $160. The money that Chinese immigrants made was never great. Even successful gold miners typically realized only modest incomes, and wages paid to Chinese workers for other kinds of employment, such as railroad work, were low. On average, it took seven months for workers to pay off their debts. Nevertheless, the credit-ticket system remained firmly in place and popular until Chinese immigration was halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and admittance to the United States stopped by the Scott Act of 1888.

  4. The latest Berkeley findings are important because they suggest illegal immigration doesn’t have the feared negative effect on jobs and wages of American citizens, though some research has questioned the studies’ focus on local U.S. labor markets, preferring to examine national trends. It’s also possible bigger jumps in immigration — say, a 10 percentage-point increase in the share of immigrants — could yield bigger wage effects.

  5. The Borjas Study. According to Borjas’ econometric summary, job displacement caused by immigration is minuscule at best. Following the same SMSA methodology as for wages, a 10% rise in the number of immigrants has virtually no negative impacts on Black or White male labor force participation rates or number of weeks worked. And the impact on the unemployment rate of natives is 0.

  6. Until 1979, the United States recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the sole legitimate government of all of China, and the immigration from Taiwan was counted under the same quota as that for mainland China, which had little immigration to the United States from 1949 to 1977. During the late 1970s, the opening up of the People’s Republic of China and the breaking of diplomatic relations with the Republic of China led to the passage, in 1979, of the Taiwan Relations Act placed Taiwan as an area with a separate immigration quota than the People’s Republic of China. Under British rule, Hong Kong was considered a separate jurisdiction for the purpose of immigration, and this status continued after the handover in 1997 as a result of the Immigration Act of 1990 .

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