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U. S. Immigration & Naturalization Laws Affecting Asians

Compiled by Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen

Over 114 years have passed since the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, May 6, 1882. The time is opportune to learn about the Act and other immigration laws --and consider how these laws have continued to affect Chinese, Asians, and many other people living in the United States. The following is a selected listing of United States immigration laws as they have affected Asian immigrants.

1790 Naturalization Act

Naturalization was restricted to "free, white aliens," who could become United States citizens after two years' residence in the U. S. Minor children resident in the U. S. at the time of their parents' citizenship also qualified.

1868 Burlingame Treaty

Formalized the right of Chinese and United States citizens to freely migrate and emigrate from one country to the other "for the purpose of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents. "By 1880, anti-Chinese forces pushed for a major revision of the treaty, stating that the United States has the right to "regulate, limit, or suspend such coming or residence, but may not absolutely prohibit it."

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, May 6, 1882

Prohibited for ten years the immigration of Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled. Teachers, students, merchants, and travelers were exempted from exclusion. Chinese were also denied the right to become naturalized American citizens. The act was extended another ten years by the Geary Act of May 5, 1892. On April 27, 1904, exclusion was extended indefinitely. These acts made Chinese laborers the first nationality group specifically denied entry into the United States. Prior to this act only prostitutes and criminals were denied immigration. Shortly after Chinese exclusion, the United States barred paupers, the insane, diseased persons, idiots, and polygamists.

1888 Act of September 13, 1888 & Scott Act, October 1,1888

Anti-Chinese forces continued to press for more stringent exclusion laws. In the Act of September 13, 1888, Chinese laborers were not allowed reentry unless they had either a lawful wife, child, or parents in the United States, or had property in the U.S. valued at $1,000 or more. The Scott Act prohibited their turn of any Chinese laborer, even those who temporarily left the United States. This law stranded over 20,000 Chinese who had traveled overseas to visit family or relatives. The Scott Act was repealed in 1894.

1917 Immigration Law

Among the provisions of this law was a regulation prohibiting men with wives in India from bringing their wives to the United States.

1922 Cable Act

Took away the citizenship of any female U. S. citizen who married an "alien" ineligible for U. S. citizenship. (At this time, no Asian was entitled to become a naturalized citizen.) If a European American woman divorced, she could regain her citizenship status. However, if a U. S.-born Asian woman divorced an Asian man, she would not regain her citizenship.

1924 Immigration Act of 1924 (National Origins Act)

Established quota percentages based on the census population in 1890. (In 1928 the Census of 1910 was substituted as the basis of the quotas.) Besides limiting Asian immigration, this act deliberately favored northern and western European nationals over southern and eastern Europeans. Effectively the act reserved 94% of the visas for European countries.

1943 Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts

December 13, 1943: For the first time Chinese were granted the right to become naturalized citizens of the United States. However, only 105 Chinese were allowed to enter the country each year. Chinese were defined by immigration officials as any person with as much as one-half Chinese blood, regardless of country of origin.

1945 War Brides Act

December 28, 1945: Wives of men in the American armed forces were allowed to enter the United States. Approximately6,000 Chinese women entered the United States under this act. The following year fiancees of American soldiers were allowed to immigrate.

1946 Filipino Immigration and Naturalization Act

July 2, 1946: Passed at the same time as a bill designed to grant admission and naturalization to natives of India, the Filipino Immigration and Naturalization Act extended American citizenship to Filipino residents in the U.S. who came to the United States prior to March 24, 1943.

1948 Displaced Persons Act

Due to the revolution in China, from 1949 to 1954 a total of3,465 Chinese students, visitors, and seamen were granted permanent resident status.

1948 "Miscegenation" Ruled Unconstitutional

The California State Supreme Court declared unconstitutional California's legal ban on "miscegenation" -- racially-mixed marriages.

1952 Immigration and Nationality Act

The modification of 1924 & 1928 laws with preference categories emphasizing highly skilled labor and family reunification (see Appendix A).

1952 McCarran-Walters Act

Primarily an act to deport "subversives" in immigrant and Asian American communities, this act nullified the exclusive language in the 1790 Naturalization Act restricting citizenship to whites. For the first time Asian immigrants were allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The bill came about because foreign policy-makers, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk maintained that it was embarrassing to speak of American democracy to Asian governments while such racially-based laws were still in effect.

1953 Refugee Relief Act

2,777 refugees of the Chinese revolution, the majority of whom were Chinese, were allowed entry. In addition, 2,000 visas were issued to Chinese whose passports had been endorsed by the Chinese Nationalist Government (Taiwan) for entry to the United States.

1955 Confession Program

As the "Red Scare" and Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings heated up, the American Consul in Hong Kong warned that Chinese spies could use fraudulent citizenship papers to secure American passports and enter the United States. The federal government immediately began investigating thousands of Chinese Americans, many of whom came to the U.S. as "paper sons" as a way to get around the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The government created a "confession program" which required those confessing to fully disclose their false documentation and to name relatives and friends who helped them or were themselves illegal. This created an atmosphere of great distrust and bitterness in Chinese American communities. Tens of thousands seeking to officially legalize their status "confessed" and 92% of them were permitted to remain in the U.S.

1957 Act of September 11, 1957

Chinese who obtained entry visas by fraud and misrepresentation were not deported if a spouse, parent, or child was a citizen of the United States or a permanent resident. In1955, the U.S. Consul in Hong Kong charged that there were many illegals in the United States (and that some of them could be "communist infiltrators"). A "confession" program was established for illegals to proclaim their true immigration status. If their "confessions" were accepted, then their papers were adjusted so they could stay.

1962 Presidential Directive, May 25, 1962

Hong Kong refugees were permitted to enter the United States. By June 30, 1966, 15,111 Chinese were admitted.

1965 Hart-Celler Act of October 3, 1965

The discriminatory national origins quota system was abolished as of July 1, 1968. Each country outside the Western Hemisphere was assigned a quota of up to 20,000 emigrants per year. The quota was calculated according to the "alien's" country of birth. However, persons born in Hong Kong, were charged to Great Britain's quota and their emigration to the United States was not to exceed one percent of the total visas issued to Great Britain in one year.

1965 Amendment to the Immigration and Nationalities Act

When the "Hart-Celler Act" went into effect in 1968, the bill's co-author, Representative Emmanuel Celler of New York, assured Congress, "Since the people of Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they have no family ties in the U.S. [to serve as a basis for family reunification]." Implementation of the act strongly emphasized family reunification (instead of national origin) and somewhat downplayed labor certification. Caribbean nations, which as colonies had been subject to very small quotas, were not included in the 120,000 quota for all nations in the Western Hemisphere. National limits of 20,000 were set in 1976.The act enabled Asian-Caribbeans to emigrate to the U.S., and created a "backup" route for emigrants ultimately desiring to emigrate to the U.S. Asians emigrating initially to a Latin American or Caribbean country, could then re-migrate to the U.S.A quota was set of 170,000 emigrants to be admitted to the U.S. from the Eastern Hemisphere.

1965 Preference System, Immigration Act of 1965

Spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens were exempt from preference requirements and numerical quotas:

1. First preference:
Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens - 20%.
2. Second preference:
Spouses and unmarried adult children of permanent resident aliens - 20% (26% after 1980).
3. Third preference:
Members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability - 10%. Requires labor certification.
4. Fourth preference:
Married children of U.S. citizens - 10%.
5. Fifth preference:
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens over age 21 - 24%.
6. Sixth preference:
Skilled and unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in supply in the United States - 10%. Requires labor certification.
7. Seventh preference:
Refugees from communist countries or communist-dominated countries or the general area of the Middle East - 6%. Removed when 1980 Refugee Act enacted, with 6% going to second preference.
8. Nonpreference:
Applicants not entitled to one of the above preferences. Not currently being used because preference applicants take up all available places.

1967 Loving v. Virginia

The U. S. Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

1980 Refugee Act

A special category established federal funding for those applying for political refugee status. The act was a direct response to "boat people" arriving from various Southeast Asian countries. From 1975-1980, 76.2% of such refugees were from "East Asia" with only .4% from the "Near East/South Asia. "Refugees are exempt from the United States' worldwide limit of270,000 authorized immigrant entries. However, the act stipulates that no more than 5,000 persons per year can have their status changed from asylum-seeker to permanent residency.

1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

Enacted for the dual purpose of: (1) offering amnesty and legal status to select categories of undocumented immigrants and(2) to control illegal immigration by placing sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers. The effect of the bill was to increase discrimination against Asian and Hispanic workers by 19%, according to a study done by the General Accounting Office.

1990 Immigration Act of 1990

The first major revision of immigration policies since 1965,this act took a labor market approach to the immigration question. It linked admission criteria to the enhancement of a country's capacity to effectively compete in the international marketplace. Total immigration was allowed to rise each year through 1994 (from 530,000 to 700,000), and dropping thereafter to 675,000 immigrants per year. The act nearly tripled the "skilled professionals" quota, increasing such occupational slots from 54,000 to 140,000 for "priority" workers (and their close family members) with specialties in the fields of science, medicine, and technology. New immigrants were admitted on the basis of family reunification. Permanent resident preferences grew to 465,000 in 1994 and 480,000 in 1995.

Appendix A: 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act
1. First preference:
Highly skilled immigrants whose services are urgently needed in the United States (and the spouses and children of such immigrants -- 50%).
2. Second preference:
Parents of U.S. citizens over age 21 and unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens -- 30%.
3. Third preference:
Spouses and unmarried adult children of permanent resident aliens -- 20%.
4. Fourth preference:
Brothers, sisters and married children of U.S. citizens and accompanying spouses and children -- 50% of numbers not required for first three preferences.
5. Nonpreferences:
Applicants not entitled to one of the above preferences -- 50% of numbers not required for first three references, plus any not required for fourth preference.
--Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
--Hing, Bill Ong , Making and Remaking Asian America Through
Emigration Policy, 1850 to 1990.
Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1993.
--Hyung-Chan Kim. Dictionary of Asian American History.
Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.
--Thernstrom, Stephan, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin.
Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

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