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Laws Affecting Asian Americans

Included in this section are descriptions of some of the major laws and Supreme Court decisions that have affected Asian Americans and by extension many other groups of immigrants and American citizens.

Burlingame Treaty
On July 28, 1868, the United States and China signed a very significant treaty allowing immigration, commerce, and free movement between the U.S. and China. The treaty was designed to prevent discrimination against Chinese citizens while they were in the United States. “Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.”

However, not long after the treaty was signed politicians and labor unions began to argue that the Chinese were taking jobs away from (white) Americans. This led to a series of anti-Chinese riots in California that came to be known as the “driving out” and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
This act prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers. This was the first time that a law was passed banning a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. The xenophobic rationale for this was that Chinese immigration “endanger[ed] the good order of certain localities within the territory.”

The Act provided for special exceptions for teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. However, it was very difficult for a Chinese person to prove that he or she was not a laborer. The Act excluded both unskilled and skilled laborers.

Any Chinese who were already in the country at the time of the passage of the act were required to obtain a special certification to re-enter the country if they left. These certifications were next to impossible for people to obtain, as was proving that they were in the country at the time the Act was passed. State and Federal Courts were also prohibited from granting citizenship to Chinese resident aliens.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed 1943, but Chinese immigration was limited to only 105 visas per year. This “national origins quota system” continued until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

Geary Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act was originally intended to last for 10 years. In 1892, the Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States (27 Stat. 25), also known at the Geary Act, was passed and extended the Chinese Exclusion for another 10 years. This extension would become permanent in 1902.

The Geary Act also required all Chinese in the United States to register and get a certificate that proved that they were in the United States legally. If they could not produce the certificate on demand, they faced imprisonment and/or deportation.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898)
After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a Chinese American brought a case before the Supreme Court that has had an impact on generations of Americans and set a precedent that is still upheld today.

Prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese citizens and Chinese Americans were able to travel freely between China and the United States. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, anyone of Chinese ancestry who was not already in the country was banned from entry even if they were born in the United States. If a person of Chinese ancestry was already in the United States and left they were not allow to return (without the difficult to obtain paperwork).

Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. In 1894 (after the Chinese Exclusion Act) he sailed on a temporary visit to China. Upon returning to San Francisco, he was denied entry into the United States, and was forced to stay on the ship. The “Collector of Customs” for the port of San Francisco determined that, although Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States, because his parents were Chinese and “subjects of the Emperor of China,” Wong Kim Ark was also considered to be a “subject of the Emperor of China.” He was therefore excluded from entry into the United States.

Wong Kim Ark challenged the decision of the “Collector of Customs” to exclude him.
Because he was born in the United States, Wong Kim Ark argued that he was not a citizen of China, but a citizen of the United States. His case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court in 1898.

The Supreme Court determined for the first time in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) that a person born on U.S. soil, regardless of the citizenship of their parents, becomes a U.S. citizen at the time of their birth. Despite numerous attempts to overturn it, this decision has been applied to everyone born on U.S. soil since the Wong Kim Ark case.

“Gentleman’s Agreement”
Although Japanese immigrants never made up more than a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, in the early 1900s anti-Japanese sentiment was a growing problem. Sensationalized negative reports began appearing in the press about the Japanese immigrants (and Japanese-American citizens). In response to rampant anti-Japanese sentiment in California, in December 1906 the San Francisco School Board voted to ban all Japanese and Korean children (many of whom were U.S. citizens) from white primary schools and send them to an already segregated Chinese school in the city.

When news of the School Board’s decision reached Japan, the Japanese government was outraged. In an attempt to salvage relations with Japan, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated a deal with California, whereby the Japanese and Korean students would not be segregated in San Francisco and California would not pass other anti-Japanese legislation. In return, Roosevelt negotiated an informal agreement with Japan in 1907 and 1908 known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement” in which Japan agreed to voluntarily stop issuing passports to laborers and restrict emigration.

However, in 1913, California passed the country’s first “Alien Land Act” directed primarily at the Japanese.

New Mexico Alien Land Act 1921
New Mexico was one of several western states to enact an “Alien Land Act” which made it illegal for any immigrant “not eligible for citizenship” to own land in New Mexico. In the United States at the time, the only immigrants eligible for citizenship were “free, white persons” which was very narrowly defined to exclude almost all immigrants except those from Western and Northern Europe.

Alien Land Acts were enacted primarily to discourage Japanese immigrants from coming to a state and/or to encourage them to leave (agriculture was the primary occupation of Japanese immigrants at this time).

Although the New Mexico Alien Land Act was voided by changes to U.S. immigration laws in 1952 (which lifted the racial restrictions on naturalization), the Act was still part of the New Mexico Constitution until 2006, when an amendment to repeal it was finally passed.

The 1924 Immigration Act (National Origins Act)
The 1924 Immigration Act established a national origins quota system for immigration. More significantly, it prevented any person not eligible for citizenship from immigrating to the United States. Laws from 1790 and 1870 had prohibited Asians from becoming naturalized citizens, and therefore all Asians were now excluded from immigrating. As a result of this, those who had previously been allowed to enter the United States, such as the Japanese, were now excluded. The 1924 Immigration Act was a direct violation of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” and strained already tense relations between the United States and Japan.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)
The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act repealed all existing laws and measures to exclude Asians from the United States and eliminated all laws that prevented Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens. However, this law only allotted each Asian country a very small number of visas (as few as 100) each year. The Asian visa quotas were based on race and not on nationality. A person with one or more Asian parents, regardless of where (outside of the United States) he or she was born, would be counted against the quota of the country of his or her ethnicity.

Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the first time prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in public places, employment, and government services.

Immigration Act of 1965
The Immigration Act of 1965 would dramatically change immigration to the United States. The Act abolished the national origins quota system and standardized the immigration limits worldwide to no more than 20,000 visas per year from any one country. The Act also created a preference system for professionals such as doctors, nurses, and engineers and immediate family members of American citizens.

Refugee Act of 1980
After the fall of Saigon and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia, Congress created the ad hoc “Indochinese Refugee Task Force” with temporary funding. When it became clear that a formal, standardized procedure was needed to resettle and provide services to refugees, the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed. The Act uses the United Nations definition of “refugee” and provides for regular and emergency admission to the United States and Federal assistance to refugees. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, also created by the Act, now provides assistance to refugees from countries all over the world.

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