The first piece of legislation targeting Chinese laborers was Senator Tingley's Coolie bill in 1852. This bill attempted to address the question of indentured servitude by enforcing labor contracts made in China. While this proposal did not become law (and, in fact, would not have effected many laborers in the first place), debates over the bill generated many of the anti-Chinese arguments that were used for years after this first proposal.
Tingley's Coolie bill was viewed by its opposition as a blatant attempt to encourage
cheap immigrant labor to come to the United States. While enforcing the written
bond of foreign workers, it would also undermine American laborers' attempts to
raise their wages. Senator Roach added fear to the opposition by stating that
this bill would allow for at least half a million Chinese criminals to enter
the United States as contract laborers.
One factor contributing to nativist fears was the influence of the Chinese Six Companies. This umbrella organization appeared to serve as a go-between for disenfranchised laborers and the government. While this contradicts the fact that Chinese mutual help organizations--including the Chinese Six--were formed because the government had no interest in serving laborers that it did not consider legal citizens, the sense that the Chinese Six had a hand in government plans was a prevalent concern among Californians.
Additional material that seemed to support the claim that most Chinese laborers were "coolies" came from the erroneous claims of Consul D.H. Bailey, a British naval officer stationed in Hong Kong from 1871-1879 and an alleged expert of the Coolie Trade. Without an understanding of the Chinese language and little knowledge of the culture, Bailey repeatedly failed to differentiate between laborers who were emigrating freely and those who were under contract. That, however, did not limit the impact of Bailey's claims.
The question reached the national spotlight when President Grant's Message of 1874 questioned whether Chinese immigrants came to America voluntarily. In 1876, a committee in the California legislature investigating the issue relied heavily on Bailey's reports and determined that there were a number of Chinese in California bound to labor contracts.
A few months later, a Congressional Committee came to a similar conclusion even though twelve of the fourteen witnesses who testified before them were of the opinion that no such labor contracts existed in California.
|Fear of Chinese laborers taking over jobs was coupled by a growing concern of the
criminal element that had seemed to follow these immigrants to America. While there
was certainly a criminal factor in Chinese immigrants--as seen in the "tongs"--it was
not any more excessive than any other immigrant group of the era. Nevertheless, fear
of the Chinese criminal became a platform unto itself.
A 1909 study on Chinese Immigration notes: "The Chinese became the scape-goats for the evils of the time; they were stoned, robbed, maltreated in the streets with impunity by the idler and the hoodlum, who suffered no restraint."
This scape-goating is exemplified in legislative action of the time. In 1854, the Committee on Vice and Immorality linked anti-Chinese sentiment with a decrease in gambling and increases in Temperance, Sunday-School attendance and refined society. It seems that taking out frustrations on immigrants who didn't have any legal right to protest was good for building moral character of the average citizen.
During their entire settlement in California they have never adapted themselves to our habits, mode of dress, or our educational system, have never learned the sanctity of an oath, never desired to become citizens, or to perform the duties of citizenship, never discovered the difference between right and wrong, never ceased the worship of their idol gods, or advanced a step beyond the traditions of their native hive. Impregnable to all the influences of our Anglo-Saxon life, they remain the same stolid Asiatics that have floated on the rivers and slavedin the fields of China for thirty centuries of time.
These issues were debated in Congress for almost five years before the Chinese
Exclusion Act was ratified and signed by President Hayes. This bill suspended
immigration of Chinese laborers under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
The labor parties had succeeded in getting what they considered relief from unfair labor practices. Now, they believed, there was an opportunity to compete for jobs freely and effectively. At least until the threat of Asian Indians, Filipinos, and Japanese stealing their jobs became evident in the early twentieth century.