A "Chinese Wall" at the Nation's Borders: Justice Stephen Field and The Chinese Exclusion Case
Author ORCID Identifier
Chinese laborers, Immigration law, Supreme Court, Congress, Plenary power, Racism, Economic interests
First, the sweeping implications of The Chinese Exclusion Case had as much to do with the Supreme Court's concerns about its relationship with both Congress and the President as it did with the Chinese as a disparaged racial group. There are other dimensions beyond race, and one of these was the Supreme Court's view of its role with respect to the other branches of government. Importantly, the Court did not decide the balance of authority between the President and Congress on matters of immigration, an omission that surely lessens its precedential value today.
Second, the Court's pronouncement in the Chinese Exclusion Case validated another Act of Congress that applied to all immigrants brought in for cheap labor, not just the Chinese. Throughout the progressive era, the Alien Contract Labor Act limited the rights of industrialists, manufacturers, and owners of capital to hire non-citizens. There was no serious question of the constitutionality of this sweeping legislation because the nation's ability to exclude sources of cheap immigrant labor had been settled by The Chinese Exclusion Case. While undoubtedly animated by racial hatred, the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically targeted Chinese laborers, ostensibly allowing merchants, teachers, tourists, and some skilled workers to enter and to remain in the United States. The Alien Contract Labor Act, best known to lawyers through the case of the Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, rested its foundation on the structure and function of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Third, in the midst of Chinese exclusion and a new concern about porous land borders, the Supreme Court handed down the most significant citizenship case it ever decided, United States v. Wong Kim Ark. The same era of Chinese exclusion saw the Supreme Court resolve another highly contentious issue, again involving the Chinese: whether all persons born within the United States were citizens, or whether the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause applied only to former slaves. After citizenship by birth in the United States was established for all races, the administrative process for exclusion and deportation of Chinese laborers was forever changed, altering in tum the role of the executive branch and the judiciary with respect to the Chinese question.
Journal of Supreme Court History
Polly J. Price, A Chinese Wall at the Nation's Borders: Justice Stephen Field and the Chinese Exclusion Case, 43 J. Sup. CT. Hist. 7 (2018).
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