By 1870, the Chinese were the largest ethnic component of the foreign-born workforce in California, constituted some nine percent of the state’s total population, and made up fourteen percent of the total work force. The Chinese were viewed as workers who would work for meager wages and would accept any conditions of work no matter how minimal or oppressive they might be.
Most Chinese immigrants were men who had borrowed money to come to the United States and who were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. They sent money back to China regularly to repay their debts and to support their families.
Chinese immigration did have a negative economic impact on American workers. By 1870, the Chinese were a highly visible segment of the San Francisco labor force (13.2 percent). The immediate consequence of this labor influx was a reduction of wages and the extension of the working day. Of all trades in San Francisco, cigar manufacturing was the most affected by Chinese labor. Ninety one percent of all cigar makers in San Francisco were Chinese. Cigar makers in California, because of cheap Chinese labor, averaged wages ten per cent lower than in twenty other states. Wages for Chinese workers averaged half those of white workers in the shoe and clothing industries. White workers blamed the Chinese for falling wages.
Chinese immigration became a national issue culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which forbade any additional Chinese immigrants for ten years. The law was regularly extended each decade until it was repealed in 1943 when China was given a small annual quota of 105 immigrants which continued in effect until 1965.
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