May 6, 1882: Congress passes first major law restricting immigration

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Courtesy of Library of Congress

As the Civil War wound down, the U.S. economy struggled. Jobs declined. At the same time, immigration—legal and illegal—skyrocketed. The new immigrants readily accepted jobs at low pay, leaving many longtime citizens unemployed and increasingly frustrated and angry.

Disgruntled white Americans demanded that political leaders round up immigrants and send them back to their native lands. At the very least, they argued, the federal government needed to secure the borders and stop the influx of immigration. By 1880, more than 9 percent of California’s population was Asian.

Attempting to appease an angry electorate, Congress passed—and President Chester Arthur signed—the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively closed America’s borders to those with Chinese heritage, including people who were actually citizens of countries other than China.

Several Chinese nationals filed habeas corpus petitions, which initially allowed the U.S. Supreme Court to carve exceptions.

In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, which not only extended the Chinese Exclusion Act but also required Chinese laborers to carry on their person certificates of residence to prove their right to be in the U.S. It also denied Chinese the right to post bail and to file habeas corpus complaints. The law was repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and remained in effect until 1943, when Congress repealed it.

In June 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved an official apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act.

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