Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The Chinese immigration “problem” began in California. California, which became a state in 1850, far from major population centers, was confronted with a chronic shortage of workers needed to meet expanding demands for labor. The available white labor supply in California was too costly. Unhappy workers could always take up independent grub stake mining. Profitable individual mining continued late into the nineteenth century in the rich streams of California.

American small producers and workers saw Asian immigrants as a coerced labor force, not unlike slaves, and, as such, a tool that big corporations could use to their detriment. For example, the San Jose branch of the Workingmen's party saw its goal as persevering “in this struggle and agitation until we have eliminated from our midst the Asiatic serfs transported to these shores…at the behest and in the interests of soulless monopolies, by which free labor is being enslaved.” To the small producers, the availability of Asian labor to corporations spelled the end of their independence. They would be forced out of business or farming. Working men, saw Asian labor threatening their jobs, standard of living, and perhaps most important, their unions, which fought to sustain and increase both of these. The anti-Asian movement was less a movement against Asian workers themselves as it was against big corporations.

American workers made a distinction between voluntary and induced immigration. Voluntary immigrants chose to come to America because they valued liberty, equality and the American way of life. Induced immigrants came on the terms of big corporations. The induced immigrants were regarded as tools of big corporations and despoilers of the American way of life.

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.

Immigration seemed responsible for the new vulnerability of workers because it expanded the labor pool and created a reservoir of potential strikebreakers. Raised initially because of the Chinese, but later generalized to include southern, central, and eastern European immigrants, the economic threat posed by immigration politicized workers as trade unionists.

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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