Early Laws Discriminating against Asian Americans
The first wave of immigrants from Asia arrived as a result of the discovery of gold that led to the 1849 California gold rush. In the 1860s Chinese workers built much of the western half of the transcontinental railroad line. Anti-Chinese sentiment led to riots in California and calls for a ban on Chinese immigration in the late 19th century, however. Congress responded by passing restrictive legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a law that banned any new immigration of Chinese workers into the United States. The ban remained in place until World War II, when China was an ally of the United States.
Opposition also arose to immigrants from Japan. State legislatures in western states passed laws banning interracial marriages and excluding Japanese Americans from public facilities, such as restaurants. In 1906 the school board in San Francisco decided to place all Asian children in a segregated school. The decision created a diplomatic crisis with Japan. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated with Japan the Gentlemen's Agreement, under which Japan agreed to stop Japanese workers from emigrating to the United States. In return Roosevelt promised to persuade the San Francisco school board not to segregate Japanese students
According to a federal law from 1790, only "free white persons" could become naturalized citizens. Thus, Asian immigrants were not eligible to become U.S. citizens. In two rulings in the 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld the ban on naturalization of Asian immigrants. A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment led to changes in immigration law in the 1920s. Among its other provisions, the 1924 National Origins Act banned the immigration of persons ineligible to become citizens, thus blocking immigration from Asia.
States also passed other discriminatory laws. In 1913 California passed the Alien Land Law, which barred persons ineligible for citizenship from owning land. While it prevented Asian immigrants from owning property, their native-born children could.