Chinese Exclusion Cases

The Cases: Series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Chinese Exclusion Acts

Dates: 1884-1905

Significance: When making decisions that dealt with the various Chinese Exclusion Acts, the Supreme Court examined the language of the legislation and attempted to discern the intent of Congress. As a consequence, almost no immigrants from China entered the country from the 1880’s until World War II.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited most Chinese laborers from entering the country. The Scott Act (1888), the Geary Act of 1892, and the McCreary Amendment of 1893 added additional restrictions. The 1920 revision of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 entirely closed the door on all further immigration, and the door continued to be closed until 1943. In reviewing these laws, the Supreme Court consistently acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the plenary power to decide which foreign persons might be kept out of the country. The Court, however, often had to interpret various aspects of the law, and it also made a number of rulings about the due process standards that applied to the thousands of Chinese who had resided in the country before 1882.

In the first of the cases, Chew Heong v. United States (1884), the petitioner had lived in the United States before 1882, but he had visited China before the amendment of 1884 required residents to obtain a reentry certificate. In this instance, the Court decided to allow his reentry. After the Scott Act entirely prohibited reentry, the petitioner in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889) was a resident who had obtained a reentry certificate before the statute was enacted. In this case, Ping was denied admission. In upholding the Scott Act, the Court recognized that Congress had unlimited power to modify or to abrogate treaties with foreign countries. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Stephen J. Field declared that the United States “considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security.”

While recognizing that minimal standards of due process were required in immigration and deportation proceedings, the Supreme Court put almost no limits on the power of Congress to define which standards and rules applied.WhenFong Yue Ting and two other Chinese residents were found not to have required residency certificates, they were ordered to be deported. In the resulting case of Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), the Supreme Court upheld the deportations and recognized that the government’s power to deport foreigners “is as absolute and unqualified as the right to prohibit and prevent their entrance into the country.” Likewise, when Congress authorized immigration officials to exclude foreigners from admission without any habeas corpus relief, the Supreme Court upheld this procedure in Lem Moon Sing v. United States (1895), which meant that immigration officials no longer had to worry about judges looking over their shoulders. In the case of United States v. Ju Toy (1905), the Court even allowed Congress to deny writs of habeas corpus for persons claiming to be U.S. citizens.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003. 
  • Kim, Hyung-chan, ed. Asian Americans and the Supreme Court: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. 
  • McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 
  • Salyer, Lucy. Laws as Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Chae Chan Ping v. United States; Chew Heong v. United States; Chin Bak Kan v. United States; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Chy Lung v. Freeman; Fong Yue Ting v. United States; Geary Act of 1892; Lem Moon Sing v. United States; Page Law of 1875; Supreme Court, U.S.

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