By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was a moment in American history that is hard for many to forget.
From 1848 to 1855, Chinese immigrants booked passage with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company. They dreamed of finding gold in the mountains of California. <!–more–>
From 1863 to 1869, more immigrants boarded ships and sailed across the Pacific. They were tasked to build a link between the Eastern and Western United States — the “Pacific Railroad.” The immigrants also dreamed of gold lining their pockets.
Then, in 1882, Chester A. Arther signed a federal law — TheChinese Exclusion Act — that suspended further Chinese immigration. Those that violated the law would be imprisoned and deported. Chinese already in the country were made permanent aliens, forever excluded from U.S. citizenship. For the men who worked on the railroads, there was little hope of ever reuniting with their wives, who were back in China. There was no chance of starting a family in the United States.
The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 60 years later, on Dec. 17, 1943.
“Centuries ago, Chinese came here in search of a better life,” said Congresswoman Judy Chu, in a telephonic conference. Chu is a Democrat from California. “Congress passed numerous laws to stop Chinese from immigrating, to stop them from becoming citizens.
They were the only residents who had to carry papers with them all the time. If they didn’t have documents, the authorities deported them, regardless of their citizenship status.”
Today, elected officials across the country are trying to drum up support for a congressional resolution that acknowledges the injustice of the Chinese Exclusion laws.
On May 26, the inception of the 1882 Project, a nonpartisan grassroots effort, was announced by Chu, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Called House Resolution 282, hopes are that is will pass through the House and Senate.
The 1882 Project is spearheaded by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Committee of 100, Japanese American Citizens League, National Council of Chinese Americans, and Organization of Chinese Americans, with the pro bono support of Covington & Burling LLP.
“While the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed 60 long years later, it was never formally acknowledged by Congress as being incompatible with the U.S. Constitution,” said Chu.
“For generations, our ancestors were told by the U.S. Congress then that the Land of the Free was not open to them. It’s time that Congress acknowledges that these laws were unfair to Chinese Americans.
“Chinese immigrants contributed in many ways to America’s prosperity. They worked in mines and fields, created new industries and arts, built railroads to let the United States be united, and fought in a war for the United States. They contributed substantially to U.S. society, even when were not regarded as U.S. citizens. What is more, they were despised as people not worth being treated fairly.”
Chu makes the distinction that the 1882 Project is not asking for reparations.
“It is not money that they want from the U.S. government and citizens,” said Chu.
The 1882 Project’s stance is that money cannot bring an end to the humiliation that Chinese immigrants suffered. Additionally, it is problematic to define what amount of money is enough to compensate for those immigrants’ agony and how many people would be considered victims of those unjustified laws.
Additionally, the 1882 Project stresses that this is a request for an expression of regret, not for an apology.
“What we’re saying is that you can’t apologize for something you didn’t do yourself,” said Chu. “But you can express regret for something that has happened, whether or not you played a role. Though this Congress did not play a role in the Exclusion Act, it can express regret for the past.”
What the 1882 Project needs
In order to be successful, the 1882 Project believes it needs bipartisan support. Because the House majority is Republican, the 1882 Project is seeking more Republicans to be cosponsors of the resolution, so that it will have a greater chance of clearing the House and Senate.
“Write a letter to your local representative,” said Ted Gong from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. “In these letters, it’s important to say why this resolution is important to you. If you have family that was affected by these laws, tell your personal story.”
Samples of letters can be found online at the 1882 Project’s website.
Currently, the resolution only has three Republican cosponsors. ♦
For more information, visit www.1882project.org.
Keishi Matsuda contributed to this report.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.