Originally published on Al Jazeera on Jan. 30, 2017
Los Angeles, United States – For some in the Chinese American community, Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries is a little bit of history repeating itself.
Remembering how the earliest arrivals among them were targeted by discriminatory immigration policies, some Chinese Americans are cautioning Washington against repeating the mistakes it made more than a century ago.
“We will look back on this Trump ban as a shameful chapter of US history,” said Bill Ong Hing, a University of San Francisco law professor who has worked to defend American civil liberties.
Hing explained that several organisations – San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, as well as New York’s Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund – are among the legal minds participating in the nationwide fight against the order.
For many in the Chinese American community, this feels all too familiar.
The US Scott Act of 1888 barred Chinese – some of whom had residency permits and had lived and worked in the US for years – from returning after leaving the country, many to visit family back in China.
“There were several hundred Chinese in the port of San Francisco who were prevented from landing because of the act, similar to the folks at US airports this past few days,” said Gordon H Chang, a Stanford University American history professor who specialises in Asian American history.
The Scott Act affected 20,000 US residents of Chinese origin, Chang said. It was one of several modifications to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, in 1882, aimed to stop immigration from what was a tumultuous, poorly governed, heavily colonised, Qing Dynasty China.
The Chinese, historians say, were scapegoated by the US administration as a cover for the country’s economic woes, which were entirely unrelated to Chinese immigration.
On its surface, the Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftershocks like the Scott Act had the effect of drastically lowering the Chinese American community’s numbers. But there were also other deeper and longer-lasting consequences.
“Obviously, this affected the size of the community, where they lived – in ghettos or Chinatowns – gender ratios, socioeconomic status,” Hing said, referring to how, in response to this state-sponsored discrimination, many Chinese Americans retreated to Chinatowns.
Chinatowns are today seen as entertainment venues, where Chinese Americans shop for groceries and sell food and trinkets to outsiders. But, historically, these were ghettos to which Chinese Americans had retreated in order to find community support against discriminatory laws and rampant hate crimes committed against them. The Chinatown phenomenon has continued until today, with many Americans of Chinese origin trapped in the generational poverty that Chinatowns represent for some.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed more than six decades after it was introduced, in December 1943 – and then only because it suited Washington’s diplomatic agenda of the day, explained Sue Lee, the executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America. China had become a US ally against the Japanese during World War II.
“It politically wasn’t seemly to restrict the citizens of an ally,” Lee said.
‘It’s happening again’
There’s a lesson in what happened for the modern day, some say. And there are lessons to be learned from the Chinese American experience.
“The current ban on folks from the seven countries identified by Trump is similar in that these are blanket injunctions that are unsupportable by evidence that they did or will make any difference,” Chan said. “They are scapegoat measures pure and simple, pandering to public prejudices. Very dangerous.”
Lee agreed. “One of the reasons it’s important to know about it is to learn that, at one time, the US government singled out an ethnic group – the Chinese – from entering the US. That’s a lesson that we need to remember. And it’s happening again.”
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