President’s travel ban is a regression that recalls the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – when immigrants from China were on the receiving end of a xenophobic American populism that has parallels to today
“The time has arrived when we should shut the door… Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock… and it is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterised us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood.”
– US Senator Ellison DuRant Smith in support of the 1924 Immigration Act
“It is our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.”
– US President Donald Trump
Alas, history does repeat itself. It’s hard to talk about Trump’s immigration and travel ban on people from seven Muslim countries without mentioning the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the subsequent Immigration Act of 1924.
Before the Muslims, before the Mexicans, Chinese were the first target of the racist, xenophobic populist movement in the United States. The 1882 act was America’s first immigration law and the first one to target a specific ethnic group. It was later expanded to ban all Asians from migrating to the US and was not repealed until 1943. By then, hundreds of thousands of people’s lives had been ruined.
The circumstances leading to the ignominious act should be recognisable to people today: after years of prosperity, the US found itself in a crisis. The affluent elite had become out of touch with the working class (mostly farmers at the time). Droughts had hit the South and the Plains hard. From 1870 to 1890, farm prices dropped by half. Yet the unsympathetic railroad barons, who enjoyed a monopoly on transport, raised the fares for carrying agriculture products. Many families had fallen into insolvency. They were forced to sell land to banks and move to cities for jobs. In Kansas alone, 45 per cent of land had become owned by banks by 1880s.
Soon they found an easy scapegoat in the new arrivals from China. These oriental heathens were the people who built the hated railroad. They were now hired by the banks to work on the land the bankrupted farmers sold. Many also worked in mines, factories and cities, often on wages so low that the local white men had no chance to compete.
The first Chinese immigrants appeared on the American 1820 census. By the early 1850s, the Chinese American population had grown to 25,000. By the time of the Exclusion Act, the figure had surged to 200,000.
That many of them were brought to America after being tricked, coerced and even abducted by unscrupulous job agents hardly mattered.
Forced labour from China was so commonplace that in 1862 Congress passed the Anti-Coolie Act to make it illegal for businesses to import forced labour from China.
Instead of winning public sympathy, the Chinese became an easy target for disgruntled working class to vent their frustration. The Kansas Farmers Alliance, which first coined the term “populist” to describe the political views they were developing, railed against Chinese immigrants in their gatherings and rallies.
Populist writers such as Mary E Lease loudly warned about the “tide of Mongols” from China. Even The New York Times opined in an 1865 editorial “…if there were to be a flood of Chinese population – a population befouled with all social vices, with heathenish souls and heathenish propensities … we should be prepared to bid farewell to America’s cultural homogeneity”.
Even though the Chinese made up only 0.004 per cent of the American population at the time and had no real impact on the country’s unemployment situation, they become the political punching bags.
To placate workers’ demands and the cry for white “racial purity”, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Initially it excluded Chinese arrivals from naturalisation for a period of 10 years. In 1892, the ban was extended to another decade under the Geary Act. In 1902, it was established as a permanent ban and a law of the land.
The effort to drive Chinese out was so thorough that in 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act that prohibited any Chinese American who left the country from returning.
In 1894, another law was passed to make it illegal for anyone affected by the ban to petition the government for redress. Four attempts were made to challenge these laws in the Supreme Court and all were defeated.
Gradually these restrictions were applied to other Asian nationalities and finally turned into the Immigration Act of 1917 that banned all arrivals from East and Southeast Asian countries. This was further expanded into the landmark Immigrant Act of 1924 that sought to restrict all the “undesirables” (including Portuguese, Mexicans and Slavs) from entering the US. It set immigration quotas based on nationalities.
Angel Island in San Francisco became the de facto refugee camp where people caught violating the immigration laws were detained for repatriation. Between 1882 and 1940, about 200,000 Asian migrants were locked up there. Many of these desperate souls left their marks on the site by writing poems on building walls. Some of these sorrowful verses were later published under a book titled Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island. The pathos and anguish of those desperate souls still permeates the pages today.
It took two world wars to bring an end to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Congress finally repealed the law with the Magnuson Act of 1943 to allow Chinese war refugees to enter the country. China by then was Washington’s most important ally in the Pacific. It was only with the watershed 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (the Hart-Celler Act) that the nationality-based quota system was abolished.
In its shameful 60 years of practice, the Chinese Exclusion Act achieved nothing: it did not make the US great, it did not help its economy nor make the country safer.
Chinese Americans have since become an inseparable part of America’s success. Today, Asian-Americans are the wealthiest segment of the US population on a per-household basis, earning 39 per cent more than the national median income. Of the 87 US tech start-ups valued at more than US$1 billion, 19 were founded by Asian-American immigrants. Chinese Americans alone have produced eight Nobel Prize winners in Physics and Chemistry. The “undesirables” that Senator Smith sought to exclude became a pillar of the nation’s greatness.
In 2012 – 130 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act – Congress passed a motion to “express regret” for the mistake. Yet five years later, we are again witnessing an attempt to bring the sad history back.
Trump’s attempt to ban people from seven Muslim countries has, so far, been rightly rejected by courts. But he will try again. It is senseless, as it targets a specific religious/ethnic group. Like the Asian-Americans, many migrants from these countries have contributed to America’s success. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, is of Iranian origin. Bob Miner, another Iranian American, co-founded Oracle Corporate. The US has always been a great nation – it will remain so if its rulers can stop the self-inflicting wounds. ■
Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations