In 1875, Chae Chan Ping left San Francisco for China with a certificate promising him re-entry upon his return. Congress had recently banned new laborers from China, but it had made an exception for previous residents who held certificates like Ping’s. While Ping was gone, however, Congress expanded the ban to include even certificate-holding previous residents – a complete surprise to Ping when he arrived back in San Francisco twelve years later. Ping’s lawsuit, the Chinese Exclusion Case, would go before the Supreme Court in 1889 and, as Polly Price argued in a recent lecture sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society, provide a foundation for immigration case law in the Progressive Era.

As Price explained, the Court – in a unanimous opinion by Justice Stephen Field – held that the judiciary had no role whatsoever in reviewing immigration choices made by Congress. The Court did not suggest that this broad bestowal of legislative authority was “implied” by the Commerce Clause or another enumerated power in the Constitution. Rather, the Court considered such power inherent in the existence of any national government for the purposes of domestic tranquility, such that it need not be related to the Constitution or previous precedent like the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. “That the government of the United States, through the action of the legislative department, can exclude aliens from its territory,” Price read directly from Field’s opinion for the Court, “is a proposition which we do not think open to controversy.”

Four years later in the case Fong Yue Ting v. United States, the Court further allowed Congress to expel Chinese residents at will, again disavowing a judicial role in immigration decisions. As Price elaborated, the Court did not consider deportation to be punishment, with the result that it did not regard typical criminal protections as applicable. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties supported the ruling and incorporated into their platforms further restrictions on Chinese labor. With promises to be tough on the Chinese, Field himself ran twice for president – while still serving as a Justice.

As Price argued, these cases broadly influenced modern immigration law in three important ways. First, Price emphasized, they cemented authority between the branches of government and between the federal government and the states. Complete authority rested with the political branches of the federal government, although, as Price noted, the Court did not articulate any boundaries differentiating executive and legislative responsibility. Price suggested that perhaps the Court did not foresee strong differences in opinion between the branches arising, as they did last year in Zivotofsky v. Kerry.

In contrast, the states had no such authority. In the 1886 case Yick Wo v. Hopkins, Field wrote another majority opinion invalidating under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment a California law aimed at forcing Chinese laundries to close. As Price clarified, at this time the Equal Protection Clause solely limited states, not the federal government. Only with the “due process revolution” of the twentieth century did the Supreme Court apply the Equal Protection Clause to the federal government through reverse incorporation of the Fifth Amendment.

Second, Price highlighted that these cases provided a blueprint for future congressional bans on immigration. Modeled off the Chinese restrictions, the Alien Contract Labor Act of 1885 prohibited “imported contract labor,” regardless of the country of origin, and Price described in detail a Progressive Era defined by increasingly restrictive immigration controls. In 1903, Congress banned anarchists, polygamists, and beggars. In 1906, English became a requirement. In 1917, immigrants had to pass literacy tests and all immigrants from Asia were banned. And in 1921, the National Origins Act placed quotas on immigration for many countries, which were further restricted in 1924 and extended in 1929. As Price noted for context, 200,000 immigrants entered the United States in 1922, down from one million fifteen years earlier.

As Price argued, this expansion of immigration bans reveals that limits related more to conflicts between industrialists and domestic workers than strictly to racial biases. The Chinese laws had in fact made exceptions for Chinese merchants, teachers, and professionals; Congress only banned laborers. Price also suggested that the case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, in which the Court made an exception to the Alien Contract Labor Act to permit an Anglican priest to come to the United States, further demonstrates that restrictions were primarily about cheap labor. Within this context, Price underscored that the Supreme Court in this period consistently ruled against the interests of industrialists.

The final important consequence that Price discussed – which relates to debates ongoing today – was clarification in 1898 of birthright citizenship. San Francisco officials denied entry to Wong Kim Ark as he returned from a trip to China. As Ark had been born in California, he claimed citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the federal government argued that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to former slaves, not Chinese immigrants, the Court ruled seven to two for Ark. Being born in the United States made one an American citizen.

Posted in Supreme Court history

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Polly Price on the Chinese Exclusion Case and immigration in the Progressive Era, SCOTUSblog (May. 27, 2016, 5:15 PM),