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Chinese Exclusion Cases

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Significance: Using the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court first ruled in favor of challenges to laws excluding the Chinese from immigrating and becoming U.S. citizens, then succumbed to popular sentiment and upheld exclusionary statutes.


In 1882 Congress enacted the first Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese laborers and miners from entering the United States. An 1884 amendment required resident Chinese laborers to have reentry certificates if they traveled outside the United States and planned to return. The 1888 Scott Act prohibited Chinese laborers temporarily abroad from returning, thereby stranding thousands of Chinese. Merchants and teachers were exempted from the Scott Act if they had “proper papers,” thereby beginning the practice of using “paper names” to create new identities so that Chinese could return. The 1892 Geary Act banned all future Chinese laborers from entry and denied bail to Chinese in judicial proceedings. All Chinese faced deportation if they did not carry identification papers. The 1893 McCreary Act further extended the definition of laborers to include fishermen, miners, laundry owners, and merchants. The 1902 Chinese Exclusion Act permanently banned all the Chinese immigration. The Supreme Court initially attempted to defend Chinese rights under the Fourteenth Amendment; however, as anti-Chinese sentiment grew more pronounced, it withdrew even its limited protections from Chinese immigrants. The Court defended the right of Chinese to reenter the United States in Chew Heong and Jung Ah Lung. In Chae Chan Ping, it found the Scott Act unconstitutional. However, in the three 1893 cases, it upheld a law retroactively requiring that Chinese laborers have certificates of residence or be deported.