The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) marked a turning point in the history of U.S. immigration control, but it was not as definitive a move toward gatekeeping as historians have suggested. Contemporaries called the 1882 law the “Chinese Restriction Act,” reserving the term “exclusion” for its successor in 1888. The rhetorical change paralleled an important shift in policy. During Chinese Restriction (1882–1888), the United States so valued its relationship with China that it made immigration restriction subject to diplomatic negotiation. Only after the Restriction Act failed and China signaled capitulation did the United States enact Chinese Exclusion (1888), which prohibited Chinese workers, asserted America’s sovereign power to exclude, and developed modern systems of enforcement. The transition from diplomatic Restriction to unilateral Exclusion represents a powerful aggrandizement of American power.

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