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A Century of Change in Immigration: Apology in Action – Pt. 2

          In 1909, Honorable Lee S. Overman, a Democratic Senator from North Carolina introduced a bill in the Senate. If adopted, H.R. 1438 would create a head tariff “to provide revenue and at the same time to protect American labor.”[1] Obviously during the late-Victorian era, the general public, organized labor, and national officials sincerely believed in the necessity of stricter deportation laws over philanthropic concerns.

          Among the number of supporting remarks following Senator Overman’s speech was that of National Secretary George Whitaker, who opined that:

Whereas a strict execution of the present laws makes it possible to keep out the worst of the pauper and diseased elements of our present European and Asiatic immigration, but these laws admit large numbers of immigrants who are generally undesirable because unintelligent, of low vitality, of poor physique….[2]

          So many aliens were arriving, hoping in time to become naturalized U.S. citizens, that Ellis Island deportation workers’ complaint about working “twelve to sixteen hours daily for $850 a year” made the New York Times in an article titled, “Plaint of Ellis Island Men—So Many Aliens to Deport That They Cannot Eat at Home, They Say” (NYT, July 7, 1909).  

          In August 1909, Mr. Austin introduced into the House of Representatives H.R. 12255, a bill to amend the immigration laws such that firstly, all Asiatics, except public officials, merchants, students, and travelers would be prohibited from entry into United States territories; secondly, all European adults who “can not read and write and who are not industrious, and with criminal records” would be prohibited; thirdly, all members “of the so-called Black-Hand or similar organizations or societies” would be prohibited.[3]

          Every year the noise of public sentiment grew, finally culminating in the Immigration Act of 1917, and 1924. It was a time when labeled “idiots, the disabled, and the ill” were causes for deportation, regardless of their state of health at the time of arrival in the United States; and not withstanding that the immigrants had often left their home countries at great cost.[4]

          Only the arrival of World War II would help reverse the unreasonable restrictions created to exclude undesirables which had expanded to include all Asiatics (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi), Southern and Southeastern Europeans, and Hebrews.[5] On December 13, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to Establish Quotas, and for Other Purposes.[6] This law only allowed a maximum of 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

          It was by no means the end of immigration issues. 120,000 Japanese-Americans were abruptly relocated to remote arid concentration camps between 1942-45. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 ensured stringent measures to limit immigrants to “free white persons” of “good moral character.”[7] Over a million Mexican-Americans were deported under Operation Wetback in 1954.[8]    

          However the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s signaled the onset of change in outlook and attitude with regard to foreigners. “The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated race-based admission criteria and instituted ones based on the would-be immigrant’s skills, profession, or relationship to family in the United States.”[9] Visas were extended so that wives, sons, or daughters could immigrate to the United States.  The 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act provided for the resettlement of, and special assistance for, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  

          In fact, the Congressional Budget Office reported in 2006 that “the 1965 amendments are still largely in place, although they have been modified at various times.” The numerical restrictions now vary from a single annual worldwide ceiling of 290,000 to a “flexible” cap of over 675,000 per year.[10]

          But up till the end of 2009, a century later, the Chinese Exclusion Laws had never been recognized as a legal source of pain, grief, or even mortality affecting many Asian immigrants for decades.

          Against the historical backdrop, in 2009, Congresswoman Judy Chu, the first Chinese-American woman to ever be elected to Congress, lobbied and sponsored legislation on Resolutions Expressing Regret for the Chinese Exclusion Laws. Her persistent efforts appeared to finally have paid off.

          Recently, both the Senate and the House approved Resolutions Expressing Regret for the Chinese Exclusion Laws. The Senate approved of S. Res. 201 on October 6, 2011, expressing the regret for the passage of discriminatory laws against the Chinese in America.[11]  The House approved H.Res. 683 on June 18, 2012, expressed regret for the passage of legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States.[12]

          The debate on the House Floor was unusually swift and unanimous; with the 2/3 vote necessary in order for it to pass. Among the speeches in the Congressional Record, Delegate Mr. Falaomavaega of Samoa stated that the apology is significant because of the time span of eighty years (1882-1965), and as a sign that the United States is a democracy that “tries to correct its mistakes from the past.” Representative Ms. Jackson Lee of Texas stated, “The passage of this bill will make clear that we do not support those actions today.” Congressman Mike Honda of California eloquently announced, “Acknowledging and addressing these injustices throughout our Nation's history not only strengthens civil rights and civil justice, but doing so brings us closer to a more educated Nation and a more perfect union.” At 4:35pm on June 18, 2012, Mr. Lamar Smith of Texas had introduced the bill, followed by Dr. Judy Chu, and also Mr. Berman, who voiced the need for bipartisan support.[13]

         Today, there are undoubtedly issues that have arisen after September 11th  2001, but with significantly more generous limits on immigration and naturalization, and also based on practical skill sets and/or family relations, the era of protectionism via immigration tariffs and exclusion laws seems to have passed a credible milestone.

          Progressive legislators, such as Dr. Chu, will be venerated in Asian-American history not only for her daily efforts in support of immigration and labor, access to quality education, small entrepreneurs, and reducing crime, but for persistence in lobbying Congress to right a protracted historical wrong.[14]


[1] H.R. 1438, RG 85, File No. 52324, National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), Washington, DC
[2] Ibid.
[3] H.R. 12255, Ibid.
[4] RG 85, File No. 52423, Ibid.
[5] Enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Laws, Memorandum, RG 85, File No. 52423, Ibid.
[6] Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States, U.S. NARA, http://www.archives.gov/research/chinese-americans/guide.html
[7] Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, Wikipedia, Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952
[8] History of US Immigration Law and Policy, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, http://www.gcir.org/system/files/219-222_history_of_US.pdf
[9] Ibid.
[10] Congressional Budget Office of the United States, Immigration Policy in the United States (February 2006), http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/70xx/doc7051/02-28-immigration.pdf
[11] Senate Resolution 201, 112th Congress, Library of Congress, THOMAS, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:sr201:
[12] House Resolution 683, 112th Congress, Library of Congress, THOMAS, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c112:1:./temp/~c112ZLMV1d::
[13] U.S. House of Representatives, June 18, 2012, C-Span Video Library, http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/transcript/transcript.php?id=204475
[14] U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu, Legislative Work, http://chu.house.gov/legislative-work

Part 1 of Regret for Chinese Exclusion Laws was published on January 11, 2011


Research, photo of archived document, and reports prepared by Chriswong (columbiapress.org). Copyright 2012. 




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