Throughout history, our country has engaged in many immigration debates. One side advocates diversity as our nation’s values; the other emphasizes on border protection and domestic job security. The proponents and opponents of immigration have rarely come to an agreement on how to shape our immigration policy. Today the immigration debate has manifested into a travel ban of Muslim countries, construction of the southern border wall, and animosity towards the caravan asylum seekers from the southern border (Felter and Renwick). There are a couple of major problems pertaining to the immigration debate. One- we have not always been welcoming to immigrants and appreciating the diversity they brought. Two- we leave the burden on immigrants to assimilate into our country. Three- for many, liberals or conservatives, there is no tolerance for difference, making open dialogues hard to achieve. These issues need to be solved individually and at the community level.
I am personally interested in this topic because both of my parents immigrated to the United States from Asia, and specifically, my mom is a Chinese immigrant. This prompted me to look into Chinese American immigration history. I had heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act in previous history classes, and my curiosity of this problem led me to a documentary that I watched with my family because I wanted to understand the discrimination acts that were passed in the late 1800s and 1900s. The documentary covered the exclusion of people from the U.S. because of one’s race, and it was very personal because I myself am Asian, and because of my ethnicity I have felt discrimination before. This made me think of the current day issue of controversy surrounding our president, and how Trump is creating travel bans and those seeking asylum are being detained. In both cases, specific groups are being excluded from entering the U.S. I want to delve deeper into researching these current events so I can understand the details and connect it back to an event in history that is more relevant to me.
A Historical Overview
Until the 19th century, China was an isolated country but Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion resulted in economic and sovereign downfall in the Qing Dynasty in China. The constant warfare resulted in treaties and political instability, which resulted in upset citizens. Taxes were increased and there was an increase in laws and restrictions. Across the Pacific, The Gold Rush in California in 1848 and the labor demand of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862 attracted Chinese in search of the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families (Burns).
It was not long until they faced hate from others, specifically white people. This stemmed from the first impressions of the Chinese and their different physical characteristics, language, manners, and religion that were unlike Americans (Burns). Industrious and determined, Chinese immigrants worked as servants and railway workers, jobs deemed undesirable for Americans. Unemployment of white men was on the rise, and hate against the Chinese hit a tipping point (Burns). The American workers felt that their jobs were taken away from them. “This, coupled with an economic recession and rising unemployment in the 1870s fueled anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the United States” (Congress, U.S.).
The Act Itself
On May 6, 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 10-year law suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibited the right for Chinese to naturalize in the United States. It was the first significant restrictive immigration law and the first ban on a group of immigrants based on their race (Lee). It also deemed Chinese as unassimilable and banned them from naturalization.
This triggered more widespread discrimination and violent assaults against Chinese immigrants. Another constituent to the discrimination was seen through laws that broadened or extended the act further. In 1888, the Scott Act canceled all issued “certificates of return” needed for Chinese immigrants to leave and return to the country. The Geary Act in 1892 extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for 10 more years (Brown).
Harper’s Weekly, April 16, 1892
“There is no question that the Chinese are the most undesirable of immigrants, because, with all their useful qualities, they cannot assimilate socially or politically or morally with Americans.”
(“The Chinese Exclusion Bill”)
In 1910, the Angel Island station was opened to process and detain immigrants to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. According to Judy Yung, daughter of Chinese immigrants, “At Angel Island, officials thoroughly examined and interrogated applicants, often detaining individuals for weeks, months, and even years” (Yung).
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but only because of politics in World War II, not because of moral values. During the war, China had become an ally of the U.S. against Japan, and the U.S. needed to embody an image of fairness and justice. But the discrimination remained and the fears persisted “about the economic social, and racial effect of Chinese immigrants– fears that mirrored the xenophobic arguments that led to the Chinese Exclusion in the first place” (“Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1943”).
For more information, see my full historical research here.
What’s Happening Now
Today the immigration debate has manifested into a travel ban of Muslim countries, construction of the southern border wall, and an attitude towards the caravan asylum seekers. Both the supporters and adversaries of immigration have both launched legal challenges and public protests to alter public policies (Felter and Renwick).
Protest in New York against the travel ban upheld by the Supreme Court (Carrasquero)
Despite legal maneuvers from pro- and anti-immigration voices, the travel ban issued by President Donald Trump has suspended immigration from five Muslim countries. On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued a Presidential Proclamation. The proclamation states that it, “indefinitely suspends the issuance of immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to applicants from the Muslim-majority countries Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen– plus North Korea and Venezuela” (Gladstone and Sugiyama). The Supreme Court upheld the order in a 5-to-4 decision. The court’s majority claimed that it is not effectively a ban on Muslims based on the inclusion of North Korea and Venezuela in the order, therefore confirming its legality. The number of people potentially affected is over 135 million, with the majority in the five Muslim-majority nations (Gladstone and Sugiyama).
Recently, the disagreement over the construction of the southern border wall led the country into the longest government shutdown. On one hand, there are supporters in favor of building it to decrease the number of illegal immigrants coming into the U.S. On the other hand, opponents believe that illegal immigration mainly comes from overstay of valid visas. Billions of dollars of funding should not be spent on the wall and it is not the solution to the problem of immigration (Felter and Renwick).
Another manifestation is the impact on refugees and the asylum process. Many people coming from Central America are seeking asylum for protection. There thousands of people from Central America applying for asylum due to political instability. President Trump, committed to hard-line immigration policies, reduced the annual cap of refugees admitted into the United States to fifty thousand, and his orders could make it more difficult for individuals to seek asylum (Felter and Renwick). Many times, backlogs and delays can lead to separation of families and detainment. As of March 2018, the backlog in U.S. immigration courts reached an all-time high of 690,000 open deportation cases (“Asylum in the United States”).
(“Immigration Court Asylum Decisions”)
Immigration issues are varied and intertwined with historical context and complexity. Historically, the proponent and opponents of immigration have never been able to come to an agreement on how to shape our immigration policy. In our democracy, a law is passed means that a majority believes something is right. This leaves a large number of people in a controversial issue like immigration, unhappy with the result.
For more information, see my full present day research here.
Call to Action
Action steps must be taken starting off on a micro level. This starts with developing tolerance as individuals. To do this we need to appreciate diversity and develop cultural competency as individuals. Setting aside prejudice is key to being more informed about immigrants entering the U.S. An example is offering a helping hand as opposed to ignoring or pushing away someone because of their race or their culture. This is what led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the first place. Each of us should also learn to tolerate differences and engage in open dialogues to weigh immigration, job security, and border protection issues and policies.
It is also important to be more informed about immigration rights and avoid general misconceptions and stereotypes such as Muslims are terrorists and caravan asylum seekers are gangers. Organizations such as the ACLU and American Immigration Council help advocate immigrants’ human rights.
Yasin Kakande talks about his experience as a refugee and explains what compelled him and others to leave their homelands. See this video to understand a new perspective that opens up the discussion of the ongoing debate.
We as a society can start off by implementing change starting in our education. Broadening values of tolerance in schools can be done at a young age with the education that is factual and unbiased, despite one’s environment. If we start off by informing everyone about immigration issues through different perspectives and cultivating empathy, we will all be more inclined to shape up a holistic immigration policy incorporating balanced views. Overall, our immigration policy is multi-faceted. I advocate for active attitude change towards immigrants and diversity to support our national creed as a melting pot. I also proposed teaching tolerance so we as a nation are more inclusive and receptive to different perspectives. The immigration policy should be contemplated along with border security and the impact on domestic job opportunities. The solutions I have proposed both individual and widespread can be effective because they transcend the continuing debates into productive dialogues, and help solve the root cause of this issue.
Overall, our immigration policy is multi-faceted. I advocate for active attitude change towards immigrants and diversity to support our national creed as a melting pot. I also proposed teaching tolerance so we as a nation are more inclusive and receptive to different perspectives. The immigration policy should be contemplated along with border security and the impact on domestic job opportunities. The solutions I have proposed both individual and widespread can be effective because they transcend the continuing debates into productive dialogues, and help solve the root cause of this issue.