Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885
The Law: Federal law prohibiting the importation of immigrant laborers under contract
Date: Enacted on February 26, 1885
Also known as: Contract Labor Law of 1885
Significance: This law and later federal labor legislation targeting immigrants prohibited American employers from recruiting and importing foreign laborers by promising them jobs on arrival in America. The law targeted primarily Chinese immigrants on the East and West coasts who worked for lower wages than those demanded by unionized American citizens.
During the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of laborers were brought into the United States to work mines in the California gold rush, help build the first transcontinental railroad, and work in other expanding industries. A large portion of the imported workers with limited skills were Chinese and Irish immigrants, who worked more cheaply than native-born Americans. California’s gold rush was mostly played out by the 1860’s, and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
As the need for cheap labor in the United States diminished, the federal government began enacting laws to discourage the importation of more foreign laborers, particularly from Asia. The Naturalization Act of 1870, for example, limited U.S. citizenship to persons of European and African descent, thereby excluding the thousands of Asian workers already in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 went further. It placed a tax on each immigrant arriving, blocked entry of convicts and less intelligent individuals, and restricted all Chinese immigration to the United States. These laws launched a new era of restricted immigration into the country.
Enacted by Congress in 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law had two purposes: to promote the unionization of skilled laborers through groups such as the Order of the Knights of Labor and to prohibit contracting immigrants from being employed upon their arrival in the United States. The law aimed at reducing immigration to the country and supplying the workforce with better skilled trained craftsmen. The act prohibited all companies and individuals from bringing immigrants into the United States under contract or through indentured servitude. A less overt purpose of the law was to raise the quality of new immigrants by excluding people who could not pay their own way to reach the United States. Immigrants who could afford to travel to the United States on their own income were most welcome. Exceptions to this law were people in the arts and higher education, and those with special skills and talents in short supply in the United States.
After the Contract Labor Law was passed, the federal government lacked the resources to enforce it tightly. In 1888 and 1891, it was amended to include provisions for government inspections of ships carrying immigrants and for investigations of illegal employment contracts. The law effectively prevented small and midsize American employers from contracting with immigrants, but the full effect of the law on immigration is not known. Awareness of the limited effectiveness of the law created an impetus for the federal government to create the Bureau of Immigration in 1891.
Keith J. Bell
Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Steinfeld, Robert J. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
See also: Alien land laws; Anti-Chinese movement; Chinese immigrants; Contract labor system; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Railroads.