Chae Chan Ping v. United States (130 U.S. 581)

*I am working my way through key cases of Immigration Law. These cases are historical and may or may not apply current legal standards or present legal theory.


Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889)

Key Facts:

Chae Chan Ping (hereinafter Ping) was a Chinese laborer living in San Francisco from 1875 until 1887 (12 yrs). He was formally a citizen of China and did not have dual citizenship.

Note he arrived before 1882 (when the laws changed)

On June 2, 1887, Ping returned to China for a brief time. He carried with him a certificate authorizing him to return to the United States, valid under the standing laws of the time (Act of 1882) and issued by the proper port authorities.

Ping attempted to return to the US on October 8, 1888 (1 yr, 5 mths) and presented his certificate to the proper authorities.

The port authority refused Ping entrance to the US on the grounds that Congress had approved a new act on October 1, 1888. The authorities argued this new act annulled the certificate and that Ping no longer had proper re-entry authorization.

The steamboat captain promptly held Ping on board the steamboat against his will.

Initial Ruling:

The circuit court for the Northern District of California held that Ping was not authorized to re-enter the United States and was not unlawfully restrained of his liberty.

Key Issues on Appeal:

  • Could Chinese Laborers be prohibited from entry into the US under the 1888 Act where:
    • They left before the act was passed
    • They had permission to return via a valid certificate issued under the act of 1882 as amended in 1884.
  • Was this act valid where the defense argued it violated existing US-China treaties.


  • Treaties involved:
    • US-China (ratified 1845)
      • Designed to establish commercial relations.
      • Encouraged peace and amity between the two nations.
    • US-China (ratified 1859)
      • New pledges of peace and friendship
    • Amendments to the 1859 Treaty (1868)
      • Amendment 5:
        • US and Chinese both have the right to change his home and allegiance
        • Acknowledged the mutual benefit of free migration of citizens for curiosity, trade, or as permanent residents.
        • Made it illegal to force citizens to migrate against their will.
      • Amendment 6:
        • Americans living in China enjoy the same privileges, immunities, or exemptions regarding travel or residence as Chinese citizens.
        • Same for Chinese citizens living in US.
      • Amendment 7:
        • Citizens of US enjoy all privileges of public education institutions in China and vice versa.
        • US can establish and maintain schools in China where foreigners are permitted to reside and vice versa.
  • Historical Setting
    • Growing unrest:
      • Chinese laborers initially permitted entry into US primarily as gold mine workers. Now expanding into other fields.
      • Unfair Competition: Willing to work for lower salaries; to live at “sub-standards of living”; did not have families to support
      • Failure to assimilate: Isolated in self-established “Chinese communities”; unwilling to integrate socially; adhered only to the customs of their homeland. Creating a new China in America rather than becoming Americans.
      • Numbers were Growing: Compared the numbers arriving to an “oriental invasion”
  • New Treaty (1880)
    • If the government of the US feels immigration threatens to affect national interests, it may regulate, limit, or suspect such coming or residence but may not absolutely prohibit it.
    • Limitations must be reasonable and apply only to Chinese laborers.
    • Immigrants shall not be subject to personal maltreatment or abuse.
    • Did not apply to Chinese immigrants already in the US.
  • New Act (May 6, 1882)
    • For 10 years Chinese laborers could not enter the US.
    • Did not apply to laborers in the US on Nov. 17, 1880 or who came within 90 days of the passage of the act.
      • Ping arrived in 1875
    • Those already in the US would be furnished with the proper evidence of their right to come and go.
  • New Act (July 5, 1884)
    • The certificate is the only evidence permissible for establishing the right to re-enter
  • New Act (October 1, 1888)
    • From and after this act, it is illegal for a Chinese laborer who was a resident of the US but departed and has not returned before this date to return to the US
      • Ping arrived after this act passed (by 7 days)

Arguments & Decisions

  • The act of 1888 is invalid as it constitutes a complete expulsion of Chinese laborers in conflict with the 1880 Treaty
    • The court acknowledged there was conflict, but argued an Act of Congress is no less powerful than a Treaty. The treaty was “merely promissory in character” and can be repealed or modified by the latter Act of Congress.

Treaties are not inviolable where events arise calling for a change in national policy. Treaties can be modified, enforced or repealed through an Act of Congress.

Decision 1
  • The act of 1888 is invalid as it gave Congress the right to prohibit Chinese citizens to act as they wished.
    • The court argued these laborers were aliens – not citizens of the US. It stated the US has the power to exclude aliens from its territory

Jurisdiction over its own territory such that aliens can be prohibited entry is a right of an independent nation as a matter of national sovereignty as established in the constitution.

Decision 2
  • The right to exclude Chinese immigrants from entry was given away in the 1882 and 1884 acts which set out permissions for valid certificates to constitute right of entry.
    • The court argued such rights cannot be given away and any such exemptions are only valid so long as the government (of its own pleasure) permits them to stand.

Permissions or licenses to enter the US are only valid at the government’s will and are revocable at any time.

Decision 3

The court ultimately held that the Act of 1888 was valid. Whether the laws should have been worded more carefully to address persons like Ping was a matter for the legislative branch – it was not for the court to criticize the wording of the laws.

Final Decision:

Under the law as it stood, Ping had no right of re-entry.

Leave a Reply