The 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law was also known as the Foran Act and prohibited any company or individual from bringing unskilled immigrants into the United States to work under contract. The law made exceptions for foreigners recruited to do domestic service, skilled workers needed to help establish a new trade or industry, professional artists, lecturers and actors. Legislated in an era of rising immigration restriction, the terms of this law were difficult to enforce because contract workers were difficult to identify at ports of entry.
CHAP. 164.-An act to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States, its Territories, and the District of Columbia.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America . . . the passage of this act it shall be unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever, to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States, its Territories, or the District of Columbia, under contract or agreement . . . made previous to the importation or migration of such alien or aliens, foreigner or foreigners, to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States, its Territories, or the District of Columbia.
SEC. 2. That all contracts or agreements . . . to perform labor or service or having reference to the performance of labor or service by any person in the United States, its Territories, or the District of Columbia previous to the migration or importation of the person or persons whose labor or service is contracted for into the United States, shall be utterly void and of no effect . . . .
SEC. 5. That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any citizen or subject of any foreign country temporarily residing in the United States . . . from engaging, under contract or otherwise . . . secretaries, servants, or domestics . . . nor shall this act be so construed as to prevent any person, or persons, partnership, or corporation from engaging, under contract or agreement,skilled workman in foreign countries to perform labor in the United States . . . Provided, That skilled labor for that purpose cannot be otherwise obtained; nor shall the provisions of this act apply to professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers, nor to persons employed strictly as personal or domestic servants . . .
“[T]he Foran Act . . . repudiated an entire class of contracts as violations of the free labor system. Passed with the full support of Terence Powderly and thousands of Knights of Labor (KOL) assemblies across the country, the Foran Act represented on of the KOL’s few legislative successes at the national level. At the heart of the Foran Act was a direct challenge to the notion that all contracts were voluntary and free.”
Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 85.