History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Chew Heong v. United States: Chinese Exclusion and the Federal Courts
Historical Documents

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884

In 1884, Congress amended the 1882 exclusion law, acting primarily in response to the litigation in the Chinese habeas corpus decisions. Chinese routinely appealed to the federal courts when denied entry by the collector of customs. Following the 1882 Exclusion Act, federal courts allowed exempt Chinese who had not been able to obtain certificates to establish their right to enter through other written evidence and “parol evidence,” that is, oral testimony. Federal courts had differed on the question whether the Exclusion Act applied only to Chinese subjects or to all of Chinese descent who lived in any country. The definition of who, exactly, was a “laborer” was another contentious issue. Were skilled workers excluded, or only unskilled workers? Was a peddler a merchant and exempt from the law or a laborer to be excluded?

In the opinion of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, the law needed to be changed to prevent “the manifold evasions” of the original act that had been accomplished through judicial interpretation and Chinese fraud. A minority of congressmen opposed the 1884 act, arguing that Chinese exclusion had been a success as was evident in the significant decline in the number of Chinese who applied for entry at U.S. ports. The charges of fraud and evasion of the law were based on “suspicion and guess-work,” said the opponents, but the bill passed easily.

The 1884 law set out the requirements for the certificates and the definitions of exempt Chinese in much more detail and gave the U.S. consuls in China new responsibilities for enforcing the exclusion law. The “return certificates” of prior residents and the “section 6” certificates of other exempt Chinese would now include more information to assist in the identification of Chinese. Most important for the Chew Heong case, the certificates were to be the “only evidence permissible” to establish an individual’s right to enter.

[Document Source:
U.S. Statutes at Large 23 (1884): 115.]

An act to amend an act entitled “An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese approved May sixth eighteen hundred and eighty-two.”

SEC. 4. . . . The certificate herein provided for shall entitle the Chinese laborer to whom the same is issued to return to and re-enter the United States upon producing and delivering the same to the collector of customs of the district at which such Chinese laborer shall seek to re-enter, and said certificate shall be the only evidence permissible to establish his right of re-entry; and upon delivering of such certificate by such Chinese laborer to the collector of customs at the time of re-entry in the United States, said collector shall cause the same to be filed in the custom-house and duly canceled.

SEC. 6. . . . Every Chinese person, other than a laborer, who may be entitled by the said treaty or this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall obtain the permission of and be identified as so entitled by the Chinese government, or of such other foreign Government of which at the time such Chinese person shall be a subject, in each case to be evidenced by a certificate issued by such Government . . . . If the person so applying for a certificate shall be a merchant, said certificate shall . . . state the nature, character, and estimated value of the business carried on by him prior to and at the time of his application as aforesaid:
Provided, That nothing in this act nor in said treaty shall be construed as embracing within the meaning of the word “merchant,” hucksters, peddlers, or those engaged in taking, drying, or otherwise preserving shell or other fish for home consumption or exportation. If the certificate be sought for the purpose of travel for curiosity, it shall also state whether the applicant intends to pass through or travel within the United States, together with his financial standing in the country from which such certificate is desired. The certificate provided for in this act, and the identity of the person named therein shall, before such person goes on board any vessel to proceed to the United States, be vised by the indorsement of the diplomatic representatives of the United States in the foreign country from which said certificate issues, or of the consular representation of the United States at the port or place from which the person named in the certificate is about to depart; and such diplomatic representative or consular representative . . . is hereby empowered . . . to examine into the truth of the statements set forth in said certificate, and if he shall find . . . that said or any of the statements therein contained are untrue it shall be his duty to refuse to indorse the same. Such certificate vised . . . shall be the sole evidence permissible on the part of the person so producing the same to establish a right of entry into the United States; but said certificate may be controverted and the facts therein stated disproved by the United States authorities.

SEC. 15. That the provisions of this act shall apply to all subjects of China and Chinese, whether subjects of China or any other foreign power; and the words “Chinese laborers,” wherever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.


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