Foran Act

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Foran Act

United States 1885


The Foran Act, also known as the Alien Contract Labor Act, prohibited the use of contract labor in the United States. The law was part of a broader trend of restrictive immigration legislation that began to appear in the 1880s. Prior to this period, immigration to the United States had been largely open. As the number of immigrants grew dramatically in the late 1800s, groups such as nativists and labor unions began to call for a reduction in the flow of foreigners into the United States. One of the targets of those who opposed immigration was the contract labor system. In this system, employers offered a contract to potential workers so as to induce them to come to the United States. The contract system was generally carried out by paid agents who recruited workers and often provided their passage to the United States. Many in the United States had come to believe that such contract workers threatened the jobs of native workers because the immigrants were willing to work for lower wages. In reality, however, employers in the United States used relatively few contract laborers. In general, immigrants still came to the country as long as there were general possibilities for a job. Those who did come on contracts were often skilled workers from countries such as England or Germany. Despite this reality, however, Congress bowed to pressure and implemented the Foran Act to prohibit contract labor.


  • 1866: Winchester repeating rifle is introduced.
  • 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1886: Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
  • 1886: Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces.
  • 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
  • 1892: Bitter strikes in Australia lead to the closing of ports and mines.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.

Event and Its Context

The Growth of Anti-immigrant Sentiments in the United States

In 1886 the Statue of Liberty was dedicated as a monument to the immigrants who had come to the United States. Ironically, it was during the decade of the 1880s that the federal government began to place restrictions on the growing number of immigrants arriving in the United States from around the world. Before the 1880s immigration had been largely free and open. By the 1920s it had become severely restricted.

A number of groups opposed immigration. The nativist movement that arose in the 1880s included groups ranging from lower-class workers afraid of losing their jobs to elite intellectuals who had "scientific" theories to justify exclusion of certain groups. Many in the United States saw the new immigrants as a threat to the unity of the country. Nativists assumed that most immigrants were radical anarchists or syndicalists who would subvert American ideals. Although most immigrants were not radicals as many feared, the nativists had just enough "evidence" to create fear, including the Molly Maguire conspiracy in the 1870s and the Haymarket Affair bombing in Chicago in 1886.

Some of those who opposed immigration were overtly nativist, such as the American Protective Association, which had more than 100,000 members in the 1880s and 1890s. This organization attacked Catholicism, thus directing fears toward the large numbers of southern European immigrants. The labor movement also was concerned with the influx of immigrants to U.S. shores. In the 1880s, for example, the Knights of Labor, led by Terence V. Powderly—himself a second-generation Irish-American—opposed immigrants who might take jobs away from American workers. Later, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) would also take an antiimmigrant stance, expressing particular concern over the large numbers of unskilled workers.

An academic and literary elite also opposed immigration. They disliked foreign culture and ethnic groups. They often used the social sciences to create theories on race that espoused the superiority of Anglo-Saxons. These intellectuals deemed other groups "unfit" to participate in U.S. life, as they were seen to be inferior physically, culturally, and socially. These immigration opponents sometimes formed groups such as the Immigration Restriction League of Boston.

The Creation of Restrictive Immigration Legislation

Early immigration legislation was largely uncoordinated. Congress slowly restricted the formerly open door to immigrants. There was no overall plan. Rather, the federal government passed individual laws in response to specific demands and situations.

The first general immigration law was passed in 1882. This legislation was aimed at the day-to-day receiving of immigrants in the United States. It implemented a 50-cent head tax to finance immigration centers. The law excluded certain groups from immigration, including "idiots," "lunatics," and criminals. It also prohibited anyone who would become a public charge. This provision would be at the heart of much future immigration policy that did not allow entrance for strictly economic reasons. Also enacted in 1882 was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigrants from China. Anti-Chinese sentiment had been growing, particularly in the West, as more and more Chinese immigrants settled in the United States in search of economic opportunity.

Congress and the Foran Act

The Foran Act was the next important piece of restrictive immigration legislation. As organized labor grew, groups such as the Knights of Labor had become especially concerned with the use of contract labor, fearing that such workers would steal jobs from native workers. Under this system, U.S. employers sought out foreign workers by offering them a contract before leaving their country of origin. Because of the logistics involved, the employers generally did not do the recruiting themselves. Rather, they hired and paid agents to find the workers. Often the agent was an immigrant who had been in the United States long enough to have learned English and established contacts with employers. The agents then secured workers, either by traveling abroad themselves, or, more commonly, through yet another agent in a foreign country. In addition, these agents might also serve as a sort of overseer for the workers that they brought to the United States.

Nativists and mass opinion felt that U.S. industries used large numbers of contract workers from southern and eastern Europe for cheap labor and as strikebreakers. In reality, there was actually relatively little use of contract labor after the Civil War, as most industrialists viewed it as too unreliable. Furthermore, it was rarely necessary for employers actually to have to offer concrete contracts to potential immigrants. A broad assurance that jobs would be available was usually enough to attract immigrants. When contract workers were used, they were usually skilled workers from Great Britain or Germany that were brought in for particular jobs or to introduce new techniques and processes. Strikebreakers were generally voluntary immigrants. Yet Congress responded to demands and passed legislation to prohibit contract labor. This early legislation set a precedent for future laws that addressed the concern that immigrants were taking jobs from American workers.

During the first session of the 48th Congress, which met from 1883 to 1885, legislators received many petitions regarding the effects of mass immigration on native labor. In particular, many of the petitions took the form of an attack on the contract labor system. This was not the first time such criticisms had been made. An 1864 act was repealed in 1868 because it was seen as encouraging such contract labor. By the 1880s it had become a key issue used by anti-immigration groups. Thus, Congress received more than 50 petitions from individual citizens, state legislatures, labor organizations, and the Chicago Board of Trade asking the government to take action against contract labor.

In response, several members of Congress sponsored bills against contract labor. Martin A. Foran of Ohio submitted the first on 8 January 1884. On 14 January, Thomas Ferrell of New Jersey proposed a similar bill that would prohibit contract labor. Finally, on 4 April, James George of Mississippi sponsored yet another anti-contract labor bill. The Foran bill had the most success. It was reported out by the Committee on Labor and then brought up in the House of Representatives on 19 June. After amendment, the bill passed by a vote of 102-17. The Senate then debated the bill but took no immediate action.

In the second session of the 49th Congress, the Senate once again brought up the Foran bill. After several days of debate, the Senate amended the bill and passed it on 18 February 1885. The House then accepted the amendment and the president approved the bill. On 26 February 1885 the bill officially became the Alien Contract Labor Act, sometimes known simply as the Foran Act.

The Contents of the Foran Act

The Foran Act contained five sections. The first section of the act prohibited individuals or companies in the United States from formally contracting foreign workers prior to immigration and from paying their passage or assisting in any way. Section two voided all such contracts. Section three stated that the government would levy a $1,000 fine per violation on anyone found violating section one. The fine would be paid by the contractor. Section four called for a fine on ship masters who knowingly transported such contract laborers. The fine would be up to $500 per passenger, along with up to six months in jail. Section five provided for some exceptions to the ban on contract workers, allowing certain groups such as workers who possessed skills that could not be found in the United States.

Despite its attempt to eliminate contract labor, the Foran Act was difficult to enforce. For one, the simple fact that actual contract labor was rare meant that the law did little to reduce immigration. Furthermore, knowing that contracts were illegal, employers and their agents could simply make general offers of work without an actual contract. In addition, immigrants soon learned, often because of coaching by the agents, that they simply should never tell immigration officials that they had any sort of labor contract. Later legislation attempted to solve these problems with the Foran Act.

Immigration Restriction After the Foran Act

The Foran Act was certainly not the last piece of restrictive immigration legislation. An 1891 law gave the federal government more complete control over immigration and created the Bureau of Immigration. It also set up Ellis Island to process immigrants and further excluded certain groups, including paupers, polygamists, and those with contagious diseases. A 1903 law also prohibited the entrance of anarchists, epileptics, and prostitutes.

The 1917 Immigration Act codified much of the earlier legislation. It raised the head tax to $8 and implemented a literacy test. There were also more exclusions, including almost all Asians. Then in 1921 a law placed an annual limit on the number of immigrants who could enter the United States. There were national quotas for each country, based on the 1910 census. In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act further reduced the number of immigrants allowed in any given year. Now the national quotas were based on the 1890 census, which gave more slots to northern Europeans, reduced the number of southern Europeans who could enter the country, and excluded all Asians. Thus, by the 1920s the process begun in the 1880s to restrict immigration was mostly complete.

Key Players

Foran, Martin A. (1844-1921): Foran served as a Democratic representative from Ohio in the House of Representatives from 1883 until 1889. He introduced the bill that became the Alien Contract Labor Act of 1885, also known as the Foran Act.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Chinese Exclusion Act; Haymarket Riot; Knights of Labor; Molly Maguires.



Garis, Roy. Immigration Restriction: A Study of the Opposition and Regulation of Immigration in the United States. New York: Macmillan Company, 1928.

Hutchinson, E. P. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Purcell, L. Edward. Immigration. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1995.


Peck, Gunther. "Reinventing Free Labor: ImmigrantPadrones and Contract Laborers in North America, 1885-1925." The Journal of American History 83, no. 3 (1996): 848-871.

—Ronald Young