Chinese Exclusion Cases

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A series of disputes settled by the Supreme Court during the 1880s and 1890s: Chew Heong v. United States, 112 U.S. 536 (1884), argued 30 Oct. 1884, decided 8 Dec. 1884 by vote of 7 to 2, Harlan for the Court, Field and Bradley in dissent; United States v. Jung Ah Lung, 124 U.S. 621 (1888), argued 9 Jan. 1888, decided 13 Feb. 1888 by vote of 6 to 3, Blatchford for the Court, Harlan in dissent; Chae Chan Ping v. United States (also recorded as The Chinese Exclusion Case), 130 U.S. 581 (1889), argued 28 Mar. 1889, decided 13 May 1889 by vote of 9 to 0, Field for the Court; and Fong Yue Ting v. United States, Wong Quan v. United States, and Lee Joe v. United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893), argued 10 May 1893, decided 15 May 1893 by vote of 6 to 3, Gray for the Court, Brewer, Field, and Fuller in dissent. These decisions refined congressional legislation designed to prevent Chinese immigration.

In 1882 Congress passed the first of a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts prohibiting Chinese laborers and miners from entering the United States. An 1884 amendment required all Chinese laborers who lived in the United States before 1882 and who left the country with plans to return to have a reentry certificate. Six years later, the Scott Act (1888) became law. This statute prohibited Chinese laborers abroad or who planned future travels from returning. Over twenty thousand Chinese were stranded. The Scott Act did allow merchants and teachers to return if they had proper papers. This loophole began the “paper names” industry whereby Chinese created new identities to return.

Congress passed a second exclusionary act, known as the Geary Act (1892). This law continued the ban on Chinese laborers and added the denial of bail to Chinese in habeas corpus proceedings and the requirement for all Chinese to have identification certificates or face deportation. The McCreary Act (1893) further defined laborers to include merchants, laundry owners, miners, and fishers. Finally, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902 permanently closed the door on all Chinese immigration.

The government of China, Chinese living in the United States, and Chinese-Americans challenged the constitutionality of these anti-Chinese laws. The first case to reach the Supreme Court was Chew Heong v. United States (1884). In this case a Chinese laborer who resided in the United States in 1880 but left in 1881 was denied reentry in 1884 because he did not have a certificate. In a habeas corpus proceeding, he was denied a writ by Justice Stephen Field; on appeal Justice John Harlan led a divided Court in a reversal of Field's decision. Harlan determined that Chew Heong had befallen a statutory glitch, leaving before the 1882 act and returning after the 1884 amendments. Field and Justice Joseph Bradley dissented.

In 1888 the Court decided United States v. Jung Ah Lung. The defendant, a Chinese laborer, had been an American resident before 1882, and he had left to return to China in 1883 with a reentry certificate. When Jung tried to return in 1885, he did not have his certificate and was denied reentry. He sued for a writ of habeas corpus, which was issued. Once again a divided Court, this time led by Justice Samuel Blatchford, upheld the challenge of the Chinese to the enforcement of the Exclusion Act of 1882 as amended in 1884. The government argued that Chinese challenges through writs of habeas corpus were not allowed. Had the Court accepted this argument, Chinese rights would have been seriously curtailed. Once again Justice Field dissented, but he was gaining followers, including Justice Harlan.


Subjects: Law.

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