This law signaled a major shift in US immigration policy from that of a relatively open door to growing restrictiveness. Chinese were the first targets, categorized by race and class, for severely limited legal entry. The 1882 law affirmed the 1790 Nationality Act’s bar against naturalization by Asians and was the first immigration law to be enforced actively.
In this early attempt at immigration restriction, the White House and Department of State insisted that existing treaty terms had to be respected, specifically the 1868 Burlingame Treaty which had secured rights of free migration for both Americans and Chinese. These terms were renegotiated with the 1880 Angell Treaty, which allowed the United States to restrict, but not entirely end, Chinese migration. Congress acted swiftly to legislate this 1882 law which Chinese by race and targeted laborers by allowing legal entry only to narrowly defined exempt categories such as merchants, merchant family members, diplomats, tourists, students, and returning laborers. These terms proved difficult to enforce with problems of reliably verifying legal statuses, identities, and family relationships and controlling entries across both the Canadian and Mexican land borders. Many of the foundations of immigration policy enforcement emerged with efforts to implement the Chinese exclusion laws.
Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States . . . .
SEC. 4. That for the purpose of properly identifying Chinese laborers who were in the United States . . . the collector of customs of the district from which any such Chinese laborer shall depart from the United States shall, in person or by deputy, go on board each vessel having on board any such Chinese laborers and cleared or about to sail from his district for a foreign port, and on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall be entered in registry-books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks of peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each of such Chinese laborers . . . .
SEC. 12. That no Chinese person shall be permitted to enter the United States by land without producing to the proper officer of customs the certificate in this act required of Chinese persons seeking to land from a vessel. And any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the President of the United States, and at the cost of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.
SEC.13. That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and house- hold servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons.
SEC. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.
SEC.15. That the words “Chinese laborers”, wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.
Approved, May 6, 1882.
“Beginning in 1882, the United States stopped being a nation of immigrants that welcomed foreigners without restrictions, borders or gates. Instead, it became a . . gatekeeping nation . . . In the process, the very definition of what it meant to be an ‘American’ became even more exclusionary.”
Erika Lee in her book At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During The Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.