Chae Chan Ping v. United States


Between 1848, when gold was discovered in California, and the time of this case, the number of Chinese laborers in the United States greatly increased. During this short time, the Chinese immigrant population grew to become seventeen percent of the California population. This threatened American workers’ jobs; in response Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Act permitted the United States to regulate the flow of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Chae Chan Ping, a subject of the Emperor of China and a laborer by trade, lived in San Francisco, California. He left for China in 1875, but was not allowed to return to the United States in 1888 because of the new legislation. Ping contended that the Act violated existing treaties with China and that he should be allowed to re-enter the United States.


Whether an act of Congress that excluded Chinese laborers from the United States was a constitutional exercise of congressional power even though the act conflicted with an existing treaty with China.


The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Congress did have the right to deny Chae Chan Ping’s re-entry into the United States. Saying that treaties are equivalent to acts of Congress and can be repealed or amended, the Court reasoned that it was permissible to exclude the Chinese because the preservation of independence and the security against foreign aggression are the highest duties of every nation. All other considerations are subordinate. Congress must have the power to do whatever it may deem essential in order to maintain and protect the United States. Such power includes the control over the immigration of aliens and their return to the United States. The Court decided that Congress had the authority to determine whether certain foreigners should be excluded.

“The Burlingame Treaty of 1868, for example, established friendly relations
between the United States and China and stated that Chinese citizens present in the
United States were to “enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions” as
those enjoyed by American citizens.32
In subsequent years, however, viewpoints concerning foreign immigrants shifted
from one of welcome to one of disdain. Both the federal and many state governments
passed legislation aimed at stemming the flow of immigrants into the United States.33
Immigrants challenged many of these statutes both at the federal and state level.34 The
Supreme Court’s treatment of the statutes was very different depending on whether
the statute being challenged was federal or local.35
The first challenge to federal law came in Chae Chan Ping v. United States,
known as the Chinese Exclusion Case.36 In Chae Chan Ping, the plaintiff, a legal
Chinese resident and worker in the United States, was denied entry upon his return
from a trip to China.37 During his leave, Congress had nullified the law that would
have made his entry possible with a simple certificate of residence.38 Instead of being
allowed simple admission, he was denied entry altogether.39
The Supreme Court approved the federal government’s exclusion of the plaintiff.
40 In so holding, the Court announced a theory of immigration known as the
plenary power doctrine.41 Under this doctrine, sovereign nations have the absolute
right to exclude.42 Under the United States Constitution, that power has been delegated
to the federal government, and as a result, the judiciary will not review decisions
made by the federal government in the context of exclusion.43 In 1893, the Court
extended the notion of plenary power to deportation.44

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