The Law: Federal legislation that lifted a government ban on Chinese immigration
Date: Signed into law on December 17, 1943
Also known as: Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943; Magnuson Act
Significance: At the height of World War II, when the United States needed to promote goodwill with China, Congress repealed an 1882 federal immigration statute restricting all Chinese from entering the country and considerably eased the process of naturalization for those Chinese already residing in America.
Beginning with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, Chinese immigrants flooded into the state, driven from their home by waves of civil unrest and catastrophic famines. Even as the prospect of gold mining diminished, these immigrants found ready work building the transcontinental railroad, a massive engineering project that involved brutal work conditions in inhospitable environments. More than seventeen hundred miles of track were laid in six years, thanks largely to Chinese immigrant labor. Once the work was completed in 1869, however, as the Chinese immigrants returned to California urban areas and began working menial jobs, largely food service and laundry, they became the subject of nearly a decade of discrimination and violence driven by heated (and xenophobic) rhetoric that defined their presence as an economic hardship. In addition, because these immigrants did not share the language or religion of Americans, they were viewed with a keener hostility than were European immigrants.
By 1882, more than 300,000 Chinese had emigrated—a number viewed with alarm—fueling the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially closed America to any Chinese immigrants and denied citizenship to any Chinese already residing in the United States. It was the first time Congress had ever prohibited specific immigration. Initially, the ban was to last for ten years, but it was extended and ultimately made permanent in 1902. Numerous lawsuits unsuccessfully challenged the act as discriminatory, racist, and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Lifting the ban on Chinese immigration reflected political expediency during World War II. In the middle of a difficult land war in the Far East, with Japan using America’s anti-Chinese sentiments as propaganda in an effort to derail China’s alliance with the Allied Powers, the U.S. War Department moved to have the Chinese Exclusion Act rescinded. Sponsored by Washington State Democratic representative (later six-termsenator) Warren G. Magnuson, himself a veteran of naval service in the Far East theater earlier in the war, the Immigration Act of 1943 proposed lifting the ban on Chinese immigration, setting a quota on the number of visas to be granted annually at 105. (The policy at the time was to allow annually 2 percent of that immigrant population already living in America.)
The token quota did not mollify those who feared the economic and cultural impact of any surge of Far East immigrants: Chinese immigrants could pursue entry into the country through other nations. To assuage such xenophobic fears, Congress determined that for the Chinese, immigration status would be determined not by country of origin (as it was for Europeans) but rather by ethnicity. Thus, if a Chinese family living in the Philippines applied for entry, they would be counted as Chinese.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt backed the compromise. It passed both houses of Congress and was signed on December 17, 1943. It would take more than twenty years of immigration reform legislation, culminating in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, to eliminate the quota system.
- Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking Press, 2003.
- Lee, Erika. At America’s Gate: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- Yung, Judy, Gordon Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds. Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
See also: Angel Island Immigration Station; Anti- Chinese movement; Asian immigrants; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; Fiancées Act of 1946; Geary Act of 1892; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1924; United States v. Ju Toy; World War II.