Pictured: Angel Island, where the question of “How to actually implement the Chinese Exclusion Act?” was answered. 

“The surge in violence against Asian-Americans is a reminder that America’s present reality reflects its exclusionary past.” – Michael Luo

In 1890, Hong Yen Chang, Columbia Law School’s first Chinese graduate, was denied admission to the State Bar of California. By 1870, 77% of Chinese people in the United States resided in California and by 1880, 105,465 total Chinese people were living in the United States. Despite these figures, it was impossible for Hong Yen Chang or any other person of Chinese descent to earn a law license in California at this time. This inability to gain admission to the State Bar of California was the result of the pairing between the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, and a state law preventing noncitizens from practicing law in California.

Chinese immigrants came to California in search of “Gum Shan” or “Gold Mountain” after news of California’s gold rush pervaded southern China. Some came in search of gold, some worked for railroad companies completing the Transcontinental Railroad, and some worked in factories. But as their presence grew, they faced brutal violence from white Americans, and in the 1880s, at least one hundred and sixty-eight communities had forced Chinese residents to leave.

Mob violence against Chinese immigrants was common during the Gold Rush era and after. One particularly notorious attack occurred on September 2, 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where 150 white miners killed 28 of their Chinese coworkers and drove hundreds more out of town. This massacre reflected the anti-Chinese sentiments held by many Americans at the time, which were further fueled by political slogans like “The Chinese Must Go.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act (“the Act”) was passed on May 6, 1882 and was the first U.S. federal legislation that explicitly prevented the immigration of a particular nationality by prohibiting Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Originally lasting for 10 years, it was extended by the 1892 Geary Act for another 10 years, then for an additional 10 years, and finally indefinitely in 1904. The Act mandated that people of Chinese origin carry identification certificates or face deportation. 

Enforcement of the Act soon became a prominent question. In 1910, immigration officials hastily constructed a new facility on Angel Island — the Ellis Island of the West Coast. This facility isolated Chinese immigrants by preventing them from communicating with those already living in San Francisco, separating men from women and children, and subjecting immigrants to humiliating medical exams. Applicants underwent grueling interrogations in order to prove they qualified for certain exemptions to the Act, namely that they were the children of legal Chinese citizens. Immigrants suffered long detentions at Angel Island ranging from several weeks to even years while they waited for proof to arrive and corroborate their stories.

Eventually, the Act was repealed by the 1943 Magnuson Act, but it only permitted an annual quota of 105 Chinese immigrants. This quota system was finally lifted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Since then, about one quarter of all immigrants to the U.S. have been of Asian descent.

“There’s a saying that ‘the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.’ What that means to me is that in the United States, which cherishes and honors its history, mistakes like exclusion of Mr. Chang from the California bar in 1890 must be acknowledged and rectified.” Gabriel “Jack” Chin, UC Davis, Professor of Law

More than a century after being denied entry to the California State Bar, Hong Yen Chang was granted posthumous admission thanks to the work of UC Davis law students. With the help of law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin, in 2015 they successfully petitioned the California State Bar and California Supreme Court for Mr. Chang’s admission. Mr. Chang was also honored by Columbia Law School, which announced that as of January 1, 2021, their Center for Chinese Legal Studies would be known as the Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies. Benjamin L. Liebman, Columbia Professor of Law said, “Our community has been strengthened immeasurably by generations of students and scholars from China, as well as by generations of Asian Americans. How fitting, then, that we name the center in honor of our very first Chinese student…and [the] first Chinese American admitted to practice law.”

Today, the United States is comprised of more than twenty-two million people of Asian descent, and by 2055 they are projected to be the largest immigrant group in the U.S. Yet, following the influx of COVID-19 cases, the U.S. was again burdened with a wave of anti-Asian attacks

Better education regarding the history of Chinese Exclusion in America is still needed. The history of the Act, as well as its remnants in the United States, is not included in a majority of the K-12 history curriculum in the U.S. Whether or not to include the Act in their social studies curriculum at all is often left to the discretion of individual teachers, who face pressure to cover a large amount of content in a short amount of time. Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, Russell Jeung, whose student population is nearly one-third AAPI, noted that many of his students had never heard of the Act before their undergraduate studies and that “[t]hey realize they had a whole history omitted.” In an effort to encourage the ethnic studies movement, former governor of California, Jerry Brown, signed legislation to create a statewide Ethnic Studies curriculum that went into effect in 2019.

Author Biography: Amanda Bini is a moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School (GW). She has Bachelor of Science Degrees in Criminal Justice and Business Administration from Northeastern University. She is also a junior staff member of GW’s Federal Circuit Bar Journal.