Acts and Court Rulings Pertaining to Asian Immigrants


1790—Federal Naturalization Law. This eighteenth century law served as the foundation for racial discrimination in naturalization rulings. It limited naturalization of foreign-born persons to “white” persons only. As Asian immigrants appeared on American shores, this law was used as the foundation for excluding them from citizenship.

1852—California Legislature—“The Foreign Miner’s Tax.” This tax required a monthly payment of $3 for every foreign miner who did not “desire” to become a U.S. citizen. The Chinese, as a group, were considered ineligible, for even if they desired to become citizens, the Federal Naturalization Law of 1790 reserved citizenship for “white” persons only. The Foreign Miner’s Tax remained in force until 1870 when it was voided by the federal Civil Rights Act. By that time, California had collected $5 million from the Chinese.

1854—California Supreme Court—People vs. Hall. This case originated in 1853 when George Hall was tried for murder and sentenced to be hanged on the testimony of one Caucasian and three Chinese witnesses. The defendant appealed the verdict on the basis of an existing statute that forbade “blacks, mulatto persons, or Indians” from testifying against white persons. The Court upheld the appeal, determining that Chinese persons were considered “non-white” and could not be permitted to testify against whites.

1855—California Legislature—“An Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof.” This law levied a landing tax of $50 on ship owners for every passenger who was ineligible for citizenship, which meant every Chinese passenger. The act discouraged ship owners from assisting Chinese immigration and added to the amount of money each passenger had to raise if the ship owner was unwilling or unable to foot the bill.

1859—California Supreme Court—John Eldridge v. See Yup Company. The court ruled in favor of one of the Chinese Six Companies. The ruling upheld the “public character of the Buddhist rite” and confirmed that the court had no power to decide if a particular rite was against public policy or morals, so long as these rites stayed within existing state and federal law.

1862—California Legislature—“Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.” This law put a tax of $2.50 a month on Chinese living in the state, with the exception of Chinese licensed to work in mines, engaged in the production of sugar, coffee, tea or rice, or operating businesses. The law helped perpetuate the myth that most Chinese immigrants were “Coolies,” laborers pressed into service, when in fact, the majority of  Chinese came voluntarily.

1862—California Supreme Court—Ling Sing v. Washburn. The court ruled that the $2.50 capitation tax on the Chinese violated the Constitution. The ruling upheld California’s right to tax the Chinese along with other residents, but disallowed taxation of them as a separate group.  

1868—Burlingame Treaty. This federal agreement negotiated between the United States and China, protected the “free migration and emigration” of Chinese people to the United States as visitors, traders or “permanent residents.” The treaty guaranteed “the same privileges, immunities and exemptions” in travel and residence as would be enjoyed by citizens of a most favored nation. Such legal provisions, however, were often ignored on the state and local level.

1870—Federal Civil Rights Act. This act extended the same rights of legal protection that were offered to black persons: the right to sue, enforce contracts, give evidence and be subject to the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” The law also confirmed that no tax could be placed on foreigners immigrating from one country that would not be placed on foreign citizens from all countries.

1880—California Legislature—Miscegenation Laws extended to include the Chinese. These Laws prohibited the issuance of any marriage license to white persons seeking to marry a “Negro, mulatto or Mongolian.”

1882—Federal Chinese Exclusion Act. This act made it illegal for Chinese laborers to enter the United States and denied citizenship to those Chinese already living in America.

1883— Circuit Court of California In Re Ah Moy, on Habeas Corpus. A Chinese laborer and resident of California had returned to China, married and attempted to return to America with his wife, Ah Moy. The Court ruled that the wife of a Chinese laborer took on the status of her husband and was, by extension, herself a Chinese laborer. Thus, she could not enter the U. S. now that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place.

1888—The Federal Scott Act. This act prohibited the Chinese from reentering the United States after a temporary departure.

1888—The terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act were broadened beyond laborers to include “all persons of the Chinese race.”

1892—Geary Act (Renewed Chinese Exclusion Act). The revised act was renewed and confirmed as valid for another ten years.

1898—Hawaii came under American rule and was subject to all American immigration laws.

1902—Extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Exclusion Act was extended indefinitely.

1906—California State Board of Education. The state enacted legislation for “separate but equal” schools for Asiatics.

1917—The Immigration Act of 1917. This act marked the first in a series by which the U.S. government created an immigration policy allowing  immigrants into the country based on a ranked order of groups deemed easily assimilable. The act set no quotas on immigrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere, but did  establish quotas for Eastern European countries, the Near East, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

1922—United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled on a case that originated in Honolulu’s Federal District Court in 1914. The case concerned Tadeo Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who had lived most of his life in the United States or Hawaii. Ozawa’s case was a classic “test case” for citizenship, since he appeared as “assimilated” as was possible. He had graduated from Berkeley High School and the University of California. He spoke English and had converted to Christianity. The court determined that while Ozawa was “well qualified by character and education,” he was not a Caucasian and therefore ineligible for citizenship. This ruling determined the Japanese people as racially ineligible for citizenship.

1922—Cable Act. This act determined that any American woman who married an alien ineligible for citizenship would herself become ineligible for citizenship.

1923—United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled on the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Punjabi immigrant from India who married an American woman, became a U.S. citizen and served for a time in World War I. Applying the 1790 statute on naturalization, the court determined that Indians were not “white” in the commonly understood sense of the word. Thind was stripped of his citizenship.

1924—Federal Immigration Act (Johnson-Reid Act).  This act created a quota system based on “national origins.”  The act set a ceiling number on all immigration at 150,000 persons by 1927. It then determined country-specific quotas by which each country could emigrate 2 percent of the number of residents of that nationality living in the U. S. (based on the 1890 census). The ruling clearly favored northern and western European groups whose populations in 1890 were significantly larger than immigrants from elsewhere. A minimum quota of 100 immigrants was allotted to every nation, but aliens ineligible for citizenship were barred from even this quota. While Japanese and Chinese were thus given a quota in theory, in practice this provision barred them from entering the United States.