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The immigration of foreigners to the United States, and the conditions upon which they shall be permitted to remain are appropriate subjects of legislation, as well as of treaty stipulation. No treaty can deprive congress of its power in that respect.
Petitioner, a native of China who had obtained a certificate of identification authorizing him to work in the United States and then had returned to China, was denied re-entry into the country pursuant to the provisions of an act of congress approved October 1, 1888 (1888 Act). Consequently, petitioner instituted the present action, alleging that the 1888 Act was unconstitutional because it divested a right vested in him under certain treaties and because it was an ex post facto law.
Was the 1888 Act unconstitutional: (i) for divesting petitioner a vested right under certain treaties; and (ii) for being an ex post facto law?
The court upheld the constitutionality of the 1888 Act, which provided that if a native of China left the United States and returned after the Act's effective date, his certificate of identification was void and he should not be permitted to enter the United States. It first held that the 1888 Act did not impair a contract. There was no contract between the United States and individual Chinese laborers. All the rights they had were derivative, merely, resting upon the stipulations of the treaty between the United States and China, which were the contracting, and only contracting parties. The certificates of identification were mere instruments of evidence, issued to afford convenient proof of the identity of the party entitled to enjoy the privileges secured by the treaties. The court further held that the 1888 Act was not an ex post facto law. The departure of a Chinese person from the United States was not made an offense. Further, there was nothing in the nature of punishment or of a penalty imposed for the act of having departed in providing that he should not return. There was simply a repeal by Congress of a prior law found in the stipulations of the treaty with China.