By Buck Gee and Albert Shen
We are high achievers now. But U.S. leaders have not learned from history and may repeat the same mistake with immigrants from another continent.
The office of the President of the United States should be an institution of world respect and leadership. Regrettably, recent remarks by President Trump reportedly dismissing immigrants from “shithole” countries serve to degrade America’s standing as the world’s moral conscience, especially when so many senior elected U.S. leaders stand silent. There comes a time when we look to our leaders to say more than “unhelpful,” “disappointing,” or “sad comment.”
More than 130 years ago in the House, pushing for tougher immigration sanctions, Rep. Albert Shelby Willis, D-Ky., argued that immigration of non-white workers “who are without homes or families, whose education and habits disqualify them for citizenship, whose cheap wages degrade labor … should be promptly and effectually checked.”
That debate was about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. It marked the first time in U.S. history that lawmakers chose to exclude a specific immigrant group based on race, nationality and class. The Exclusion Act was later expanded to exclude nearly all Asian immigration and, until it was repealed in 1943, eliminated any path to citizenship for all Asian immigrants residing in the country.
To ensure that, as Sen. Samuel Maxey, D-Texas, declared, “the refuse and dregs of the countless hordes of China will never find a welcome here,” an immigration station was built on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay to detain, interrogate and deport Asians arriving in California. Today, the Angel Island Immigration Station stands as a stark reminder of a time when immigration policy was crafted to protect a more desirable race, ethnicity, class and religion.
It took 129 years for Congress to admit that it had wrongly used race and class to decide who should be allowed into the country and who deserved to become U.S. citizens. In passing statements of regret in 2011, Congress reaffirmed “its commitment to preserving the same civil rights and constitutional protections for people of Chinese or other Asian descent in the United States accorded to all others, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”
As children of Asian immigrants who immigrated to America through a period of openly hostile immigration policies, it is maddening to now hear the same political arguments and ethnic slurs used to justify Asian exclusion more than a century ago. Last week’s disturbing comments about Haitian and African immigrants echo the same racial stereotyping that cruelly branded our grandparents from Asia as “the most debased people on the face of the earth.”
We refuse to believe that America’s leaders who heard the president making similar remarks about African immigrants share them, but we challenge their silence as a travesty of partisan politics and a failure of personal leadership.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 from which all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to desolate internment camps. It was not until 1988, in an effort started under President Carter and concluded under President Reagan, that Congress formally apologized to the Japanese-American community for the racist internment.
The congressional actions in 1988 and 2011 affirmed the truth that punitive policies targeting Asian immigrants were misguided, and that the country celebrates Asian Americans as vital contributors to America’s great economy, society and culture.
Amid 19th century American nativism, Asian Americans — now recognized as high achievers — were then branded “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development.” Even with the success of minorities and immigrant entrepreneurs, we see that our most senior elected leaders have not learned from history and may repeat the same mistake with immigrants from a different continent.
We offer this view from dissimilar perspectives, one a Republican and former Fortune 100 executive, the other a Democratic small business owner and former Obama appointee. Yet as Asian Americans, our history compels us to condemn the notion that accident of birth by country, continent or class makes an immigrant less worthy of the opportunity for the American dream.
We are alarmed at a disturbing trend of dishonest politics and polarizing policies that aim to destroy the decency that made America great. Will it take another century or more before another congressional resolution is needed to apologize for the folly of a 21st century conceit for a more desirable mix of citizens? It is time for accountability and action from our elected officials; otherwise, the moral compass of America will truly be lost for our children.
We call on our elected leaders: We need your leadership, not your silence.
Buck Gee is the board president of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and member of the Committee of 100. Albert Shen is former Seattle resident and a former Obama administration official.