Asian Exclusion Act and Repeal

From Asian Exclusion to Inclusion: The Evolution of Naturalization for Asian Americans

Kevin Perez, December 2016

The Naturalization Act of 1790 read that for any alien residing in the United States to be naturalized, he (or she) must be a “free White person” [1]. The passing of the 14th Amendment granted African Americans and slaves citizenship after the Civil War [2]. Asian Americans (and other groups) in both instances were excluded from the definition of “citizenship”. The 1850s and 1860s (especially during the Civil War) saw this country’s first Asian inhabitants in the country, the Chinese, who came during the Gold Rush and resided in the West Coast of the USA, mostly in California. The attitudes and perceptions toward the Chinese, at first, in this particular time period weren’t too hostile and were even seen as hardworking and perceived to have good work ethic however, the competition to find gold made their routine jobs of the Chinese desirable and from this point on, full blown hostility was given to the Chinese, sometimes to the point of violence [3]. Further racial animosity towards Chinese by the late 19th century pave the way for the some of the first legislation restricting immigration on the basis of race with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which would prohibit the continuation of immigration of Chinese laborers [4]. It was the first of its kind, which highlighted the tensions with the Chinese community in 1880s America. Full blown anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments would not be seen again until the turn of the century. For a long time, the Chinese bore the brunt the most lethal prejudices of Asian groups of the country at the time [5].

From the late 19th century all the way to the beginning of the 20th, immigration in the country (the USA) had reached its peak [6]. The United States had seen an incredible and dramatic change in its ethnic composition of European immigrants. Now, they were largely Catholic or Jewish and came from South and Eastern Europe and sometimes were swarthier than previous immigrants. Groups like the Irish, Italians, Germans and the like were now the norm and immigration from the European countries that where most Americans were descended from at the time like the English and Germans also came by the numbers [7]. America by the early 20th century had something of a racially chauvinistic and ethnocentric idea of what Americans were supposed to embody and represent as a people. This was especially noticeable among Americans with the strongest of native sentiments, who believe those were supposed to have had the correct ancestry/pedigree to be part of American society. It was strong believed that the recent influx of European immigrants presented a very serious threat. Americans strongly believed that newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe were a genuine threat against American society and culture and perhaps a threat to the current ethnic, dominant stock present in the country [8]. The Dillingham Commission made that conclusion and it would be later in the 1920s would responsible for American government pushing Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration severely save for that of Northern and Western Europe, which was favored because the majority of American’s ethnic composition came from those regions in Europe [9]. The desires in these immigrants, again, the general ethnic composition among the general American population of the time that largely came from the England, Scotland, Northern Ireland (the entire British Isles) and Germany. They were seen as the standard, non-hyphenated “real” Americans at the time, no matter how exclusive and elitist the definition may have been seen at that time.

Because of the quotas in place in 1921, Asian immigration became even more limited as well. Given their small population in the first place, the numbers coming from East Asia, India and the Philippines would’ve been very small as well. In both 1910 and 1920 census, there were less than 200,000 Asians in the entire population of the USA. They never accounted for a percentage of the population [10][11][12]. Immigration would continue, of course, but not without the Nativism in America reaching its peak. The Chinese historically wore the brunt (and still did in the early 20th century) of Nativism however, in the turn of the century, it was now the Japanese and to lesser degree, the Koreans, who bore the brunt of scrutiny and scapegoating. In California, the current presence of Japanese and Koreans gave rise to the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in 1905. As done with the Chinese historically before, the argument was now that the Japanese (and Koreans) threatened the quality of life (or standard of living) but also the primacy of the White race [13]. In 1907, the US and Japan established an informal agreement in which America would promise it would not impose immigration restrictions on the Japanese [14]. It was never written into law the agreement and would be nullified following the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Asian Exclusion Act).

If the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration, the Johnson-Reed act (Immigration Act of 1924) would only limit it even more severely and the number of people allowed entry would reflect the number national origins quota [15]. The Act outright banned Asian immigration and would not be repealed until almost two decades later. Unfortunately, the Naturalization Act of 1790 still stand and Asians still could be naturalized unless they were either White or Black. Second generation Asian Americans, those born in America and born to immigrant parents, were given automatic citizenship due to the 14th Amendment [16]. American born Asians in this regard at least were not discriminated as their parents were. This extreme rigid conditions for citizenship and ban of Asian immigration would remain intact until 1940s and 1950s. Interestingly enough, there were two historical notable cases that had attempted to challenge 1790 requirement/criteria, which amazingly took place before the passing of The Immigration Act of 1924. The first example was the case of Ozawa v. United States 260 U.S. 178 (1922). Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man, tried to file for US Citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906 which still at the time only allowed free White persons to naturalize. Takao Ozawa did not seek to challenge the racial restrictions but rather make the case that Japanese were “Free White peoples”. It was rejected under the statement that Japanese were not of the Caucasian race [17]. The other notable case where this happened was in United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923), an Indian Sikh by the name of Bhagat Singh Thind, who hailed from Northern India and had served in WWI, also tried to apply for citizenship under the “freed White” criteria. He made the claim he was of the highest caste in India and was Caucasian, at least according to the definition of anthropology of the time. It too was rejected and the Supreme Court’s response was that “Not all Caucasians are White” [18]. Both instances people of a particular Asian ancestry trying to include themselves into naturalization process were met with rejection. It also demonstrated that the powers that be set the standards of who could apply for naturalization and showed the somewhat not well-defined term of race and bizarre definition of “White”. Both cases highlighted some of the rather odd cultural idiosyncrasies of the time. The first real change for Asian Americans in the process of naturalization would come in set of “baby steps”. A series of repeals would come during the Second World War but nevertheless, the quotas would continue to remain intact. These repeals are by some of the most important as they each paved the way for respective Asian groups for naturalization (but not all at the same time, of course). As a response to the alliance China established with the US during WWII/Second Sino-Japanese War in 1941, American passed a repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943 known as the Magnuson Act. Due to still lingering effects of xenophobia and prejudices toward the Chinese (and other Asian), the racial quotas continued to remain intact and the number of the Chinese allowed entry was small at best. Still, it finally allowed for Chinese peoples in America to be naturalized. The Magnuson Act it helped pave the way for the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which continued the process of naturalization for, in this case, Filipinos and Indians living in the country as well but like the Chinese, there were still heavy restrictions on the number of each respective group allowed entry and continue the continued usage of the quota system [19].

Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, or McCarran-Walter Act, had finally lifted the racial restrictions for naturalization that went back to the Naturalization Act of 1790. The new act established a preference system to determine which ethnic groups were desirable as immigrants and it also included labor qualifications as another thing of major importance. The era of Asian exclusion had come to an end and the Japanese all other Asian groups could be naturalized citizens yet the quotas would still continued to remain in place. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, for good, finally lifted the quota system that had been in place since the 1920s. Although the passing of this immigration act increased populations like various Latin American nationalities and other non-Western groups, it’s also historical for increasing the population of Asians in the country. Even 1965, Asian Americans still constituted less than a percentage of the US population but by the 2010 census, had almost reached 6%. They are now the fastest growing racial group in the country, are the best educated and with highest income in the country [22]. Historically, East Asians like the Chinese and Japanese constituted the majority of the Asian population but with 1965 Immigration act, groups like Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese have seen their numbers rise. Indians, South Asians have also seen their numbers rise. Today, South Asians and Southeast Asians account for the majority of the Asian population [23]. From 1960 to 2014, the Asian population in America grew from less than 500,000 to almost 13 million although its growth rate has slowed since 1980. That is a major, dramatic change and increase and it’s still rising. The Chinese, the Indians, the Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans are largest Asian groups immigrating [24]. It’s been amazing to see witness the dramatic change with Asian Americans. From historically barely constituting a percentage to and increasingly important yet often overlooked minority group. This growth of Asians is perhaps the time, more than ever, to discuss where Asian Americans rank in the scheme of things and their place in discourage regarding the topics of Race and Immigration, as well as their nations of origin. It’s important to include these people in the topic that is discussed in-depth but sadly overlooks their historical presence in American history.


[1] “Naturalization Act of 1790.” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[2] “Primary Documents in American History.” 14th Amendment. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[3] “Chinese Immigrants During the Gold Rush.” The California Gold Rush. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[4] “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).” Our Documents – Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[5] “Anti-Chinese Movement and Chinese Exclusion: Chinese in California.” Anti-Chinese Movement and Chinese Exclusion: Chinese in California. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[6] “The Rush of Immigrants.” Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[7] “Where Did European Immigrants Come From During the Late 19th Century? | The Classroom | Synonym.” The Classroom | Synonym. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[8] “Dillingham Commission (1907–1910).” Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US, Dillingham Commission (1907-1910). N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[9] “U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1921 Emergency Quota Law.” U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1921 Emergency Quota Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[10] “Demographics of Asian Americans.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016. . (Historical Populations Chart)

[11] “1910 United States Census.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[12] “1920 United States Census.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

[13] “New American Nation.” A New Century of Immigrants – Nativism. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[14] “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Gentlemen’s Agreement | Densho Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[15] “Milestones: 1921–1936 – Office of the Historian.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[16] “United States v. Wong Kim Ark.” LII / Legal Information Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[17] “Ozawa v. United States.” Ozawa v. United States | Densho Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[18] “Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians.” Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[19] “Milestones: 1937–1945 – Office of the Historian.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[20] “American History Documents II, McCarran-Walter Act, 1952.” American History Documents II. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[21] “U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Cellar Act).” U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Cellar Act). N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[22] The Rise of Asian Americans (2012): n. pag. Pew Research. Web.

[23] “How 1965 Changed Asian America, in 2 Graphs.” Data Bits. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

[24] “Asian Immigrants in the United States.” N.p., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Further Reading

Ancestors in the Americas: Asian American History Timeline.” Ancestors in the Americas: Asian American History Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Asian Pacific Americans and Immigration Law.” Asian Pacific Americans and Immigration Law. N.p., 31 Jan. 1998. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Worcester State University Fall 2020