Study Guide

Chinese Exclusion Act Main Idea

By Chester A. Arthur

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  • Main Idea

    There are only so many jobs. This sounds pretty obvious, but a lot of people forget it. When the Gold Rush hit, there were tons. Chinese immigrants in the 1800s were willing to take on the backbreaking labor of making the railroad, and everyone else was happy to let them.

    The problems started when those jobs went away.

    By the late 1800s, there were a ton of immigrants and not enough jobs to go around. White Americans wanted jobs without the competition of Chinese laborers. Enter the Chinese Exclusion Act, which outlawed immigration for ten years and installed ways to monitor any visiting workers.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Do economic realities ever take precedence over principles like fair play for everyone and equality under the law? Why or why not?
    2. The Chinese Exclusion Act isn't unconstitutional. Should it be? How much should the Constitution be modified, if at all, to protect immigrants?
    3. Though it's not unconstitutional to restrict immigration based on race or ethnicity it is unconstitutional to restrict immigration based on religious or political beliefs. Is this correct? Backwards? Should both be legal? Illegal?
    4. While most people would agree that the Chinese Exclusion Act is unconscionable, what about something like the Nazi Exclusion Act? What sort of criteria would have to be met before such a thing would be permissible?

    Chew on This

    The Chinese Exclusion Act used racism as a tool to enact an anti-competition and anti-business agenda. It was primarily an economic measure.

    The Chinese Exclusion Act hides its racist agenda behind a veneer of concern for business. It was primarily a tool of the nativists.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    A large sweep of Chinese immigration was followed by an economic downturn (these two things are entirely unrelated, too). White laborers wanted to protect their jobs from outsiders, and created enough political pressure to make that happen.

    The Text

    The law starts out by saying Chinese laborers constitute a danger to the United States. Yup; it just comes right out and says it. Then it says they can't immigrate for ten years.

    There's only so many ways to say, "Hey, all those Chinese people who want to live and work in the U.S.? No thanks." This law tries all of them. The meat of the law is in Section 1, which is that bars Chinese people from immigrating for ten years.

    The rest of it is spent on enforcement, including a system of monitoring Chinese people already in the country. It also points out how ship captains are supposed to deal with Chinese passengers, since this was before commercial air travel.


    No more Chinese people can immigrate to the United States. #sorrynotsorry.

  • Questions

    1. What rights should immigrants or foreign laborers have under American law? Should the Constitution be altered? Should the 14th Amendment be expanded?
    2. Was the Chinese Exclusion Act or a law like it a good idea at any point? When? If not, how can you address foreign labor crowding a finite job market?
    3. What sorts of lingering effects can a law like this have, both to a Chinese-American population and to relations between China and the United States?
    4. Should immigration be restricted in terms of ethnicity or race? Religion? Political belief? Any criteria you can think of? Why or why not?
    5. Is it ethical to use a population of people for cheap labor, as Chinese immigrants were used on the railroad, and then enact measures to keep more from immigrating? Why or why not? Do ethics like these have any basis for laws?
    6. The United States often finds itself at odds with the lofty principles espoused in the Constitution and political and economic reality. When this happens, which is more important? What's more important in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Act?

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