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Chae Chan Ping v. United States

Citation. 130 U.S. 581 (1889).
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Brief Fact Summary.

Chae Chan Ping (Plaintiff) was denied reentry into the United States despite having lived in the country for 12 years and argued that the denial violated U.S. treaties with China.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

An immigration statute is not unconstitutional because it conflicts with an international treaty.


Plaintiff was a Chinese laborer who had lived in San Francisco for 12 years. He left the United States to visit China and acquired a certificate allowing reentry before leaving. A week before his return to the U.S. in 1888, Congress amended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. The amendment annulled Plaintiff’s certificate of reentry and terminated his right to land. The captain of the ship upon which Plaintiff arrived took custody of him and Plaintiff filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The writ was denied and Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.


Is an immigration statute unconstitutional when it conflicts with an international treaty?


(Field, J.) No. An immigration statute is not unconstitutional because it conflicts with an international treaty. After the Gold Rush began in 1848, citizens on the West Coast began to be concerned about the influx of Chinese immigrants and the competition for jobs they represented. These citizens asked Congress to address the issue and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed. In 1868, the U.S. and China had entered into a treaty that allowed the movement of people between the two countries. In 1880, a supplemental treaty was signed that acknowledged the U.S.’s right to limit or suspend immigration from China. This treaty allowed those Chinese laborers already in the U.S. to leave and return at will. The Chinese Exclusion Act then established a ten-year suspension of the immigration of Chinese laborers but, in accordance with the 1880 treaty, did not apply the suspension to those Chinese laborers already in the U.S. at the signing of the treaty. As part of the legislation, the customs collectors at U.S. ports supplied these laborers with certificates of residence. Faced with the issuance of numerous fraudulent certificates, Congress enacted an amendment to the Exclusion Act in 1888 that all laborers with certificates of residence outside of the country at the time of passage would have their certificates annulled and would not be allowed to reenter. Despite the fact that the amendment in 1888 violated the treaties of 1868 and 1880, as well as the enabling legislation that gave the two treaties effect, this newest legislation is constitutional. The treaties were of no greater legal obligation than the 1888 legislation. A treaty that relates to a subject within Congress’s power is the equivalent of a legislative act and may be repealed or modified by Congress. Congress has the authority to change policy, so long as its acts fall within constitutional limits of its authority. The treaties did not limit Congress’s power to act, so the only other inquiry is whether Congress has the constitutional authority to regulate immigration. Congress may exclude foreign citizens from the country to preserve its independence and security. This power is incident to the sovereignty of the government of the United States as established by the Constitution. The rights of Chinese laborers granted by treaties and previous legislation were revocable at any time by the passage of additional legislation.


This case is known as the Chinese Exclusion Case and stands for the proposition that the national government has the inherent, plenary, and sovereign right to control its borders even though such control over immigration is not expressly provided for in the Constitution. The authority springs from the very nature of sovereignty itself.

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