May 6, 2017 marked the 135th anniversary of the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first law to expressly target and prohibit a specific group from immigrating to the United States.
The law was signed by President Chester A. Arthur and imposed a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration or naturalization. It was reauthorized and expanded several times in the following decades, and was not repealed until 1943.
In 2012, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution introduced by Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), which formally expressed regret for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“It (The Chinese Exclusion Act) split families apart, created a second-class citizenry, and disenfranchised an entire ethnic community,” said Chu in a statement. “In fact, my own grandfather who had been here legally since 1904 was forced to carry a certificate of registration at all times for almost 40 years, or risk deportation.”
“Unfortunately, 135 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, our nation is once again debating whether an entire group of people should be banned from entering the United States based on their country of origin,” said Chu.
She went on to say that policies targeting immigrants, Muslims, and refugees do not succeed. She called the Chinese Exclusion Act “one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history,” and that we cannot allow history to repeat itself.
Those darkest periods included the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the special registration of foreign nationals from 25 countries in the aftermath of 9/11. They were imposed under the guise of keeping us safe, but really sought to divide us.
A film, “The Chinese Exclusion Act” produced by Steeplechase Films and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), premiered at CAAMFest in March. Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu started making that film five years ago, long before Donald Trump even considered running for the presidency.
In the film, you see the country grappling with deep, existential questions. Who gets to be American? How do we define citizenship? When and why ought people be blocked from coming to the United States?
History need not repeat itself. We must take a stand and say, “never again.”