Another Original Sin

Do you know who were the targets of the first US restrictive immigration law ever passed? Asian American women.

The horrific murders of eight people — 6 of them Asian American women —in Atlanta, Georgia last week fostered further insult: some people seemed certain this was a hate crime specifically against Asian Americans; others insisted, no, it was misogyny pure. Apparently, these people have never heard of the word BOTH. Context is everything, including historical facts.

By the early 1800s, East Asian groups began immigrating to Hawaii, where American businesses and missionaries had established plantations and settlements. Originating primarily from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, they were predominantly contract laborers on plantations. With Hawaii’s annexation by the US in 1893, larger Asian populations would immigrate. The first major wave to the continental US occurred mainly on the West Coast during the California Gold Rush, starting in the 1850s. Many companies in California and as far east and north as Massachusetts sought Asian immigrants to fill an increasing demand for labor in gold mines, factories, and on the Transcontinental Railroad, very often highly dangerous work. Some plantation owners in the South sought Chinese labor as a cheap means to replace slavery’s free labor.

In the 1860s and 1870s, nativist hostility to Asian presence intensified, with the formation of organizations like the Asiatic Exclusion League. In 1862, California imposed a tax of $2.50 a month on every Chinese man, just, well . . . because. East Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese Americans, who comprised the mainland’s population majority, were regarded as the “yellow peril” and suffered violence, lynchings, and large-scale attacks, like the 1886 Rock Springs Massacre, where a mob of white Wyoming miners killed nearly 30 Chinese immigrants accused of taking the white miners’ jobs, and the 1887 murders of 31 Chinese miners in Oregon.

In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, the first restrictive immigration law against any group–and it was focused on women.

It’s said that slavery was this country’s original sin—although that makes me wonder about what happened to native Indigenous Americans. In any event, I’m opposed to a competition of sufferings, so it would appear crucial that we remember the very first restrictive immigration law was against Asian American female people. This law targeted forced laborers from Asia, particularly “immoral” Asian women who would “potentially engage in prostitution” as “undesirable people who would henceforth be barred from entering the United States.” In practice, the law was enforced to institute a near-complete exclusion of Chinese women from the US, preventing male laborers from bringing their families with or after them.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 followed, prohibiting virtually all immigration from China, the first immigration law to do so on the basis of race or national origin. The law also prevented Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as US citizens. The Geary Act of 1892 further required Chinese to register as proof of their right to be in the United States. Still, Chinese immigrants fought to defend their existing rights and to pursue voting rights and citizenship, and in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that a person born in the US to Chinese immigrant parents was a citizen at birth, establishing an important precedent in its interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause.

But anti-Asian hostility persisted, exploding in Pacific Coast race riots of 1907 in San Francisco, and in Bellingham, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada. In the Bellingham riots, a mob of 400-500 white men attacked the homes of hundreds of South Asian immigrants, beating them and driving them out of town. Such events encouraged the US to pursue the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement [sic] with Japan, wherein the Japanese government agreed to prohibit emigration to the United States. In practice, this meant Japanese immigrants were barred unless they had previously acquired property or were immediate relatives or “picture brides” of existing immigrants. (As Koreans were Japanese colonial subjects at the time and could be issued Japanese passports, many Korean women also immigrated, ironically, as family members and “picture brides.”) In 1913, California banned Japanese immigrants from purchasing land. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that states could define a Chinese student as non-white for the purpose of segregating them in public schools. In 1930 a major anti-Filipino riot occurred in Watsonville, California. In 1933 Filipinos were ruled ineligible for citizenship.

Prohibitions of Chinese and Japanese immigration were expanded to Asia as a whole in the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, which prohibited all immigration from a zone that encompassed parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. (Yes, stop and catch your breath at the stunning scope of that one!) The Immigration Act of 1924 introduced national origin quotas for the entire Eastern Hemisphere. Existing Chinese immigrants were further excluded from agricultural labor by racial hostility and, as jobs in railroad construction declined, increasingly moved into self-employment as laundry workers, store and restaurant owners, traders, merchants, and wage laborers. (When European Americans wonder why all those restaurants and laundries, well . . .)

In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled ethnic Japanese were not Caucasian and therefore did not meet the “free white persons” requirement of the 1790 Naturalization Act. In 1923, the Court ruled that while Indian South Asians were considered Caucasian by then contemporary racial anthropology, they were not seen as “white” in the common understanding, and thus ineligible for naturalization. In addition to first-generation immigrants, whose permanent ineligibility for citizenship curtailed their civil and political rights, second-generation Asian Americans (who formally had birthright citizenship) continued to face education segregation, employment discrimination, and prohibitions on property and business ownership.

The most blatant bigotry occurred during World War II, after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps between 1942–1946. While roughly a third of those interned were first-generation immigrants ineligible for citizenship, the vast majority were second- and third-generation citizens by birth. Notably, Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii joined the army’s 100th battalion in Europe, which then merged with the all-volunteer Asian Americans of Japanese descent 442nd regimental combat team—which in turn was awarded 18,143 decorations including 9486 Purple Hearts, becoming the highest decorated military unit in US history.

After World War II, US immigration policy changed——somewhat. In 1943, the Magnuson Act ended 62 years of Chinese exclusion; though providing for a quota of only 105 persons to immigrate each year, it did permit the Chinese present in the United States to become naturalized citizens. But the Act consolidated the prohibition of property or business ownership by Chinese Americans. The McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 repealed the remnants of the “free white persons” restriction of the 1790 Naturalization Act, permitting Asian and other non-white immigrants to become naturalized citizens, but retained a quota system that effectively banned nearly all immigration from Asia; its primary exception was family reunification for US citizens.

In 1965, Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii became the first woman of color elected to Congress, and in 1972 she co-authored and sponsored the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, which prohibited gender discrimination in the US education system or other federally funded institutions. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in Michigan, and his murder became the rallying point for Asian Americans in what is considered the beginning of the pan-ethnic Asian American and Pacific Islander Movement. In 1989, the American Homecoming Act allowed Amerasian children from Vietnam to immigrate to the United States–14 years after the war ended.

In 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first Indian American, first Asian American, first African-American, and first female Vice President of the United States of America.

What a long, torturous road getting here – and we are nowhere near here yet. Still another original sin of America’s.

Please keep all this in mind as you read the following names (Korean and Chinese names listed last name first, as in the original). Thank you.

Park Soon Chung, age 74
Kim Suncha, age 69
Grant Hyun Jung, age 51
Yue Yong, age 63
Tan Xiaojie, age 49
Feng Daoyou, age 44

Delaina Ashley Yuan age 33
Paul Andre Michels, age 54

This blog post will be off next week.