A lily vendor in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1896. (Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress)

In backing a Senate proposal to slash legal immigration, President Trump said he aimed to help Americans “competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals.”  The looser immigration rules in place for half a century, he said, have “not been fair to our people, our citizens and our workers.”

Trump was careful to add that minority workers have been among those “hit hardest” by unfettered immigration. But there is a racially charged history to the idea that immigrant workers depress American wages, an argument that led to the country’s first immigration restriction law: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinese workers first came to North America in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. Later arrivals helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad. When gold was plentiful and labor was in short supply, the Chinese were tolerated. But when the economy struggled in the 1870s, animosity against Asians grew.

Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, fanned the flames. Kearney arrived in San Francisco in 1868 as a merchant seaman and decided to stay. He built a successful business hauling goods by wagon and became increasingly involved in the labor movement. Responding to high unemployment and a nationwide railroad strike, Kearney in 1877 founded the Workingmen’s Party of California. The party objected to the Chinese workers’ willingness to toil for low wages on railroads and in mines. But the party’s anti-Chinese views were rooted in racism and revulsion at the newcomers’ unfamiliar customs.

“A bloated aristocracy has sent to China — the greatest and oldest despotism in the world — for a cheap working slave,” Kearney proclaimed in 1878.  “It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth — the Chinese coolie — and imports him here to meet the free American in the labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor.”

“These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things.”

President Chester A. Arthur in an undated photo. (UPI)

The Workingmen’s Party quickly became a force in California and national politics, exerting pressure on Congress and President Chester A. Arthur to act.

In early 1882, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first significant restriction on free immigration in U.S. history. The bill barred Chinese laborers from entering the country for 20 years, and denied citizenship to the Chinese already here. Those who wished to leave but planned to return had to register at the U.S. Custom House. And even those Chinese citizens who were allowed to come to the United States could not do so unless they procured a passport, written in English and countersigned by a U.S. consular representative in China, describing the holder and his intentions.

Julia Sand, a 32-year-old New Yorker, urged Arthur to oppose the measure. Sand didn’t know Arthur, but during his presidency she wrote him 23 letters urging him to overcome his shady past as a machine politician. Arthur ordered most of his personal papers destroyed upon his death, but he asked that Sand’s letters be preserved, and they reside at the Library of Congress.

“A congress of ignorant school boys could not devise more idiotic legislation,” Sand wrote. “It is not only behind the age, but behind several ages — not only opposed to the spirit of American institutions but opposed to the spirit of civilization all the world over.” She implored him to “please give it a most emphatic veto.”

Arthur did. On April 4, he sent a long and forceful veto message to Capitol Hill. Arthur acknowledged that an 1880 treaty with China allowed the United States to “regulate, limit or suspend” the immigration of Chinese laborers if the influx seemed to threaten public order, but he argued that barring immigration for 20 years, “nearly a generation,” went far beyond the treaty and would be “a breach of our national faith.” He described the registration and passport requirements as “undemocratic and hostile to the spirit of our institutions.” He also noted that the Chinese laborers had made significant contributions to the development of the West, and warned that the draconian bill “must have a direct tendency to repel Oriental nations from us and to drive their trade and commerce into more friendly hands.”

The New York Times hailed Arthur for his “firmness and wisdom.” Sand was overjoyed. “I must tell you that your veto of the Chinese Bill delighted me,” she wrote from Saratoga. “And, what is more to the point, a great many other people also were pleased — pleased and surprised. Don’t you feel flattered how awfully surprised they are, whenever you do anything good? Well, go on surprising them. But I am never surprised, because I expected it of you.”

Arthur had taken a courageous stand — but it was short-lived. After a failed attempt to override the veto, Congress approved a revised version of the law. It cut the restriction period to 10 years, but included all of the other provisions Arthur had denounced so eloquently just a few weeks before. Nevertheless, Arthur signed it. For the next 61 years, until the law was repealed in 1943, nearly all Chinese immigration to the United States ceased.

Scott S. Greenberger’s book on Chester A. Arthur, The Unexpected President, will be published by Da Capo Press next month.

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