Immigration and Citizenship

I didn’t ever expect to post anything topical in this blog, since the subjects of my posts have mostly all been dead for 20 to 50 years. But I thought that due to the ongoing coverage about refugees and immigrants, this might be a good/interesting time to talk a little bit about the history of Chinese immigration to the United States and how immigration laws affected not only the Chinese students in America, but also their spouses and children.

The first treaties and agreements between China and the Western powers were incredibly unfair to China. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking between Britain and China, which ended the First Opium War, was the first of the “unequal treaties” between China and the Western nations (Encyclopaedia Britannica). These treaties were known as “unequal” because China had to give up land, trading rights, or import tariffs, while the other signatory to the treaty had no such obligations. The United States joined in the signing of unequal treaties after the Second Opium War in 1858 with the Treaties of Tientsin, which opened even more treaty ports to Western control, allowed the entry of Christian missionaries into the interior of China, set up foreign legations in Beijing, and lowered tariffs again (US Department of State).

Despite the contentiousness of these Chinese-Western relations, China and the United States signed the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, in which the US granted China Most Favored Nation status. More importantly to our story, it also provided for unrestricted immigration to the United States from China (US Department of State). This treaty was immensely unpopular among the US people and in the US Congress, which led to several modifications, the most important being the Angell Treaty of 1880. This treaty limited Chinese immigration to the US to white-collar professionals only. But the most severe backlash to Chinese immigration in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.


The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first piece of legislation which mandated a complete moratorium on immigration of a specific racial group to the United States (Our Documents). Any person of Chinese origin who wanted to immigrate to the United States had to prove that he or she merited an exemption, termed “Section 6”. Those with Section 6 exemptions were “teachers, students, merchants, and travelers. These exempt classes would be admitted upon presentation of a certificate from the Chinese government” (US Archives). The students I have been researching for this blog have all been Section 6 immigrants, and they show up as such on their ship manifests and in the Chinese Exclusion Indexes (New York Chinese Exclusion Index – this link is from Another important provision of the Chinese Exclusion Act was that it proscribed those of Chinese ancestry from becoming US citizens, regardless of whether they were born in the United States.

This provision is incredibly important to our modern debate over immigration law, because it was contested in 1898 by a man who was born in California to Chinese parents who were permanently domiciled in the state. In the subsequent Supreme Court case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the argument was made that under the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Mr. Wong should be considered a natural-born citizen since he was born in the United States to permanent residents. The Supreme Court agreed (Wikipedia).

As an aside, this Supreme Court decision gave the United States the precedent which has generated so much debate about immigration in recent times: the idea that anyone born in the United States is considered a United States citizen, regardless of the origin of their parents. This Supreme Court decision is where the outcry in the United States against “anchor babies” comes from. (Here the author would like to note that those who talk about immigrants giving birth to “anchor babies” are typically men who have never attempted to get pregnant, been pregnant, or given birth. It’s not necessarily something that just happens, that you one day just decide to do when you need citizenship. Ahem). The precedent that anyone born in the United States to a permanent resident, citizen or not, automatically becomes a citizen, has caused a great deal of debate in the public sphere in the United States, and the origin of this debate is right here in the history of Chinese immigrants to the US, although in recent years the debate flares up when discussing immigration from Latin America.

Another set of restrictions on immigration and citizenship dealt with marriages between citizens and non-citizens. The Expatriation Act of 1907, section 3, stated that American women who married non-US nationals automatically lost their US citizenship unless they remained in America or registered with a US Consulate abroad. Although this section was repealed with the Cable Act of 1922, women who married alien nationals who were not eligible for US citizenship still lost their own citizenship. Since Asians were not considered “racially eligible” for US citizenship, any American woman who married an Asian man not born in the US lost her citizenship, and any Asian woman who married an American man was not eligible for citizenship.


These restrictive laws, treaties, and regulations could make life extremely confusing for Chinese students in the United States. E. J. Chu‘s personal and family situation is an interesting example on this topic. E. J. Chu himself was ethnically Chinese but born a Portuguese citizen. In 1917, he married a native-born American woman. Under the Expatriation Act, she lost her US citizenship upon her marriage, becoming Portuguese. They had five children during their marriage, four of whom were born in China. These four children were considered Portuguese citizens, although they were born to a Chinese man and an American woman. The middle child, as I discussed in my previous post, was born in New York, so she was an American citizen by birth. Technically this should not have happened, as she was born to two Portuguese parents who were not permanent residents, as the Wong Kim Ark precedent mandates.

Another interesting situation was that of a student I’ll be discussing in an upcoming post: Bertie Chan. She was born in Hong Kong, so although she was ethnically Chinese and born to two Chinese citizens, she was a British citizen by birth. Her family moved to Canada when she was two years old, and two of her younger sisters were born there, making them Canadian citizens. Later, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where Bertie met and married a US-citizen Chinese man (allowable at this time thanks to the Wong Kim Ark precedent). Bertie and her husband Gustave had one son while living in Oakland, California, and then moved to Tientsin, China, where they had several more children. All of these children were considered US citizens, and the ones who were born abroad were registered at the US Consulate in Tientsin. However, despite the Exclusion Act, Bertie was never considered a US citizen since she herself was ethnically Chinese. After her husband died, she returned to the United States and asked for admission as a US citizen, believing herself to be so due to her late husband’s citizenship. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied her entry as an American, stating that she was, “inadmissible as one not in possession of a passport, and that she was a quota immigrant not in possession of a quota immigrant visa” (US Congressional Serial Set, Vol. No. 11379, Session Vol. No.2, 81st Congress, 2nd Session, H.Rpt. 1761). The previously cited bill, which asked for Bertie to be admitted to the US, also noted, “She would have become a citizen of the United States by this marriage [to Gustave] in 1912 had she not been by law racially excludable” (US Congressional Serial Set).

The Cable Act was repealed in 1936 and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, but neither of these repeals were retroactive. Because of this, when many previous Indemnity Scholars began to return to America after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, even those who would have been granted US citizenship previously had they not been Asian had to enter the United States as foreign refugees and were subject to the Asian immigration quota until the Civil Rights movement of the 60s prompted a reevaluation of a racially-motivated immigration system (Wikipedia).

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