Chinese Immigrants to the US: Past and Present

According to the Migration Policy Institute:

Chinese immigrants are the third-largest foreign-born group in the United States, after Mexicans and Indians. Chinese immigration to the United States has consisted of two waves, the first arriving in the mid-1800s and the second from the late 1970s to the present. The population has grown more than six-fold since 1980, reaching 2.3 million in 2016, or 5 percent of the approximately 44 million immigrant population overall.

Chinese migration to the United States picked up during the mid-19th century, when primarily male manual laborers arrived in the West Coast for agricultural, mining, railroad construction, and other low-skilled jobs. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a political response to virulent anti-Chinese public attitudes and pressures from labor unions, severely limited future immigration of Chinese workers and barred Chinese residents from obtaining U.S. citizenship. Though the law was repealed in 1943, few mainland Chinese could immigrate due to other restrictions placed on non-European immigration in the 1920s.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, significant policy changes in the United States and China opened a new chapter of Chinese migration. These shifts included the 1965 Immigration Act in the United States that re-opened migration pathways for non-European immigrants and created temporary worker programs for skilled workers, as well as China’s loosening of its emigration controls in 1978, and the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979. The number of immigrants from mainland China in the United States nearly doubled from 299,000 in 1980 to 536,000 in 1990, and again to 989,000 in 2000, reaching 2.1 million in 2016.

This six-minute video from AJ+ describes the push factors that influenced people in China to emigrate to the United States in four different waves. Chinese immigrants first came to the United States in the mid-19th century and continue to arrive well into the 21st century. While each family’s story is unique, the narrator explains that over time that Chinese people have left China for different reasons in different times including searching for economic opportunity, hopes a better life for their children, fleeing the impact of war, political persecution, and more recently in search of clean air and water.

Reflection Questions

  1. What does do the producers of the short film want viewers to know about the history of Chinese immigration to the United States?
  2. What role, if any, should the identities of immigrants and their motivations for coming to the U.S., impact the way they are treated when they arrive?
  3. Research the history of other immigrant groups to the United States and consider how their experiences are similar and different than the Chinese. How do you explain the similarities? How do you explain the differences?

Learn more about Chinese Immigration to the U.S. with these additional resources:

  1. Chinese Immigrants in the United States from the Migration Policy Institute
  2. Becoming American: The Chinese in America (film and study guide from Facing History and Ourselves).