Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The treatment of Asian immigrants in the nineteenth century by federal, state, and local governments, as well as by the public at large, represents a bitter underside to U.S. and Canadian history. In response to the demand for cheap labor, Chinese first immigrated to the United States in significant numbers during the middle of the nineteenth century. They were instrumental in completing the transcontinental railroad and contributed greatly to the mining industry in the West.

It is well known that after the Civil War, greater legal freedoms for African Americans came with the abolition of slavery and the implementation of the Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Far less known, however, is the Chinese misfortune that mounted during this same period. In California, the home of many Chinese immigrants, partisan political concerns, along with labor unionism, figured prominently in the often-violent anti-Chinese movement. The American West as a whole experienced over 150 anti-Chinese riots during the 1870s and 1880s. The most destructive Great Plains riot broke out in Denver on October 31, 1881, leaving one Chinese person dead and causing over $50,000 in damage. Calgary experienced a similar riot in 1892.

In the first comprehensive federal immigration law, Congress in 1882 barred virtually all Chinese immigration to the United States and also excluded criminals, prostitutes, "lunatics," "idiots," and the poor. The courts upheld this and future Chinese exclusion laws. In the famous Chinese Exclusion Case (1889), the U.S. Supreme Court concurred with Congress that the presence of "foreigners of a different race" who "will not assimilate with us" was "dangerous to the peace and security" of the United States. Canada also sought to restrict Chinese immigration. Beginning in 1885 Chinese immigrants were forced to pay an entry fee, or "head tax," to enter the country. Because the head tax did not completely eliminate Chinese immigration, the fee was raised in 1903 to $500; the following year the number of Chinese immigrants fell from more than 4,700 to 8. Canada barred all Chinese immigration on July 1, 1923, a day Canadian Chinese refer to as "Humiliation Day." Discriminatory Canadian legislation directed at the Chinese was not repealed until 1947.

As a result of restrictive immigration legislation, the Chinese population in the Great Plains declined after 1890, while Japanese migration to the region increased, especially to Colorado and Nebraska in the United States and to Alberta in Canada. Both nations, however, soon extended the exclusion laws to effectively bar immigration from Japan and persons of Asian ancestry from any nation. For example, the Gentleman's Agreement between the United States and Japan in 1907-8 severely restricted immigration from Japan. A similar agreement between Canada and Japan limited the number of Japanese male immigrants to 400 annually; in 1928 Japanese immigration was further reduced to 150 per year. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1917 expanded Chinese exclusion to prohibit immigration from the "Asiatic barred zone," including the vast majority of Asia. A 1924 law, best known for creating the discriminatory national origins quota system, excluded from admission noncitizens "ineligible to citizenship," which directly affected Asian immigrants who could not naturalize and become citizens.

Other provisions of the immigration and nationality laws reinforced the anti-Asian sentiment reflected in the exclusion laws. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the law allowing "white" immigrants and persons of African ancestry (after the Civil War) to naturalize as barring Asian immigrants from naturalizing. In Ozawa v. United States (1922), for example, the Court held that a Japanese immigrant, as a nonwhite, could not naturalize and thus could not become a citizen. Consequently, before repeal of the whiteness requirement for naturalization in 1952, Asian immigrants could not vote or enjoy other rights associated with U.S. citizenship. In Canada the Chinese did not gain suffrage until 1947. The children of Asian immigrants born in the United States or Canada, however, became citizens at birth.

Several states, particularly in the West with its growing Japanese population in agriculture, enacted "alien land laws" in the early twentieth century that barred the ownership of certain real property by immigrants "ineligible to citizenship." Racial animus combined with economic factors fueled passage of the laws. Influenced by California's alien land laws of 1913 and 1920, Texas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Kansas enacted similar laws during the 1920s; only Colorado and the Dakotas did not. Alien land laws did not disappear until the 1950s in most western states.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the U.S. Congress slowly relaxed the Asian exclusion laws. During World War II, pressures to end the prohibition on Chinese immigration to the United States grew as it became increasingly embarrassing for the government to prohibit immigration from China, a valued ally in the war effort. In response to foreign policy concerns, Congress in 1943 allowed China a minimum quota of 105 immigrant visas per year.

Despite this meager liberalization of the law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 carried forward the bulk of the national origins quota system that drastically limited immigration from Asia as well as from southern and eastern European. Not until 1965, as the civil rights movement forever transformed the nation, did Congress repeal the last vestiges of the Asian exclusion laws. Restrictions on Chinese immigration to Canada were completely removed by 1967. Since the 1960s immigration to the United States and Canada from Asia has increased dramatically, as has the overall Asian American population of the two countries.

Kevin R. Johnson University of California, Davis

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy 1650-1990. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Salyer, Lucy E. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Little, Brown and Co., rev. ed. 1998.

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