The Case: U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the exclusion of Chinese immigrants
Also known as: Chinese Exclusion Case
Date: Decided on May 13, 1889
Significance: In addition to recognizing the sovereign power of Congress to exclude any groups fromimmigration, the decision in this case reaffirmed congressional discretion to abrogate or modify treaties.
Chae Chan Ping, a subject of the emperor of China, worked as an unskilled laborer in San Francisco, California, for about twelve years. In 1887, he went to China for a short visit. Before leaving, he obtained a customs certificate entitling him to return to the United States. On October 1, 1888, Congress amended the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act with the Scott Act, which included a complete prohibition on the reentry of all Chinese laborers who left the country, even if they had legal certificates to the contrary. The Scott Act was inconsistent with rights guaranteed to Chinese visitors in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty and the 1880 Treaty Regulating Immigration from China. When Ping arrived at the San Francisco port on October 8, 1888, Customs House officials, because of the Scott Act, refused his request to land. After Ping’s appeal to the federal district court in California was unsuccessful, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision of the lower court. Writing the official opinion for the Court, Justice Stephen J. Field wrote that the power to exclude foreigners was an “incident of sovereignty,” which was “a part of those sovereign powers delegated by the Constitution.” The federal government had the right to exercise this power “at any time when, in the judgment of the government, the interests of the country require it.” Conceding that the Scott Act contradicted “express stipulations” in treaties, Field wrote that a treaty, according to the Constitution’s supremacy clause, must be deemed as “only the equivalent of a legislative act, to be repealed or modified at the pleasure of Congress.” Field also rejected the idea that the right of visitation in a treaty was a formof property protected by the Fifth Amendment.
Thomas Tandy Lewis
See also: Burlingame Treaty of 1868; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Exclusion Cases; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Deportation; San Francisco; Supreme Court, U.S.