It's no secret that the U.S. of A is a country of immigrants. We're a country where Smiths work with Garcias, Wongs go to school with O'Malleys, Takahashis play basketball after work with Goldbergs, Nguyens get coffee with Patels, and Azikiwes have conferences with Yilmazs.
We're a mosaic. We're a melting pot. We're a collage. We're the country where if you want to wash down a kimchi taco with a glass of Moroccan mint tea and then grab a khopra paak and an espresso…you can.
The land of the free and the home of the brave has a long history of welcoming immigrants…and a history of turning around and saying "No. We don't want you. You're different" that's almost as long. But, unless you're Native American, everyone came to the U.S. at one point or other.
And everyone came for the same reason: cold, hard, American cash.
Because historically, America's been where the jobs lived. In the 19th century, which saw the largest wave of immigration, the U.S. was building tons of infrastructure. And that needed labor. When the West Coast was in the process of blowing up due to the Gold Rush, it found that it really needed to get connected to the east coast. Gold's heavy, horses are slow, ships sink, and wagons tend to get robbed—the answer was a trans-continental railroad.
Because of this, a ton of Chinese men came over to work on the railroad system. When they were finished with the railroad business, they moved onto mining that sweet, sweet gold. But there was less mining work available, and other groups of (mostly white) laborers started to get upset at Chinese people for simply being there.
The Chinese people, in response, backed off the mining and instead started settling down in big cities. (Ever wonder why there are Chinatowns in most cities? Most of them date back to around this time.) They wanted to stick together for a number of reasons: they liked being around people who spoke their language and shared their values, and they also like not having to deal with racism all the time.
Makes sense, right?
But this wasn't enough for some people, and a political movement out of California (where most of the Chinese immigrants had settled) tried to get immigration from China made completely illegal. The first attempt got vetoed by President Hayes (the unsung hero in this whole thing), but the second attempt in 1882 got signed.
The Chinese Exclusion Act outlawed any immigration from China for the next ten years. It also placed severe restrictions on anyone coming to work, and created these weird, Big Brother-type monitors for Chinese people coming into the country.
The thing stuck around for years, too. It wasn't repealed until 1943, which is an embarrassingly long time. It was the first time any specific ethnic group was singled out in terms of immigration with the justification that they were bad news.
The craziest part, though? It's not even unconstitutional.
Your mind is probably blown right now. We'll wait while you collect it.
That's right, the Chinese Exclusion Act is not technically against the Constitution. So while it's been repealed, that's not stopping another law from being made that would do pretty much the same thing.
Let's break it down for you. In the United States, discrimination is outlawed according to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This states that any citizen gets the equal protection of the law, no matter what. Did you see the loophole there?
The keyword is "citizen." Immigrants are, by definition, not citizens. According to the letter of the law, you can make any law governing them that you want. As long as you're legislating race, ethnicity, or country of origin, you're just fine. (Try to do it against a religion, and you're butting up against the First Amendment, though.)
While the Chinese Exclusion Act is no longer on the books, something like it could easily come back. The whole point of history is to learn from the mistakes of the past. Here's one of them. Let's not make it again.
After all: all but 1.7% of Americans (that would be Native Americans/Alaskans) have their not-so-distant origins in other countries. Our great-grandpappys and great-grandmammys, our Urgrossvaters and Urgrossmutters, our bisabuelos and bisabuelas, our pita ke daada jees and paradaadees, our ông nội lớns and bà cốs, and our babu kubwas and bibi kubwas all came from places far away from Denver or Detroit or Dallas.
And that's pretty much what makes America so awesome.
A Thorough Take
Want to learn more? Of course you do. Here's a good rundown of everything.
A Whole Bunch of Documents
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the most important document, but it was also one of many. Here's a bunch of them.
The Joy Luck Club
While the bulk of the film takes place after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, this is a critically acclaimed look at the lives of four Chinese immigrants. Check it out. Or, check out our own guide to the book.
The Chinese-American Story Didn't Just Stop
Yeah, there are Chinese immigrants still coming to America, and that's awesome. It's important to look at people not as frozen in time, but as participants in the modern world. So here's more info on what Chinese immigration to the U.S. looks like now.
It's a Long Story
The Chinese Exclusion Act is a midpoint in a two hundred year (and counting) story. There's more to know. Here's some of it.
Here's the whole thing in one fell swoop.
If you have some time, here's the full story.
President Chester A. Arthur
Look at those chops!
President Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes poses here with his beard.
This is a later take, calling the Chinese Exclusion Act a skeleton in Uncle Sam's closet.
Contemporary Political Cartoon
Here's a more humanist take on the whole thing. The only one barred from entry are the Chinese.