TRUMP’S ANTI-IMMIGRANT CAMPAIGN:
WILL WE REPEAT A HISTORIC MISTAKE?
Table of Contents:
President Trump’s Executive Orders to temporarily ban Muslims and refugees and crack down on undocumented immigrants hurls America back to the dark days of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when Congress, for the first time, passed a law barring a specific immigrant group based on race and national origin.
SCAPEGOATING AND STEREOTYPES
Like Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the Chinese Exclusion Act scapegoated a specific ethnic group based on false assumptions and public prejudices. During a time of economic depression, politicians and white workingmen falsely blamed Chinese laborers for lowering wages, taking away jobs, and draining the economy. As the first group of non-European immigrants to come to the United States, Chinese were condemned as unassimilable vile heathens, unfit to ever become American citizens. Physically different, they were easy targets of discriminatory laws and racial hostility. As early as 1870, the California State Legislature passed a law denying entry to Chinese immigrant women unless they could prove they were “of correct habits and good character.” Politicians, continuing to fan the flames of prejudice and blame, pressured Congress to restrict Chinese immigration, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and denied Chinese the right to naturalization.
Similar tactics are being used today by Trump to pander to his support base and to justify his anti-immigration policies. Claiming, “Islam hates us” and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, he has called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. Never mind nobody in the U.S. since 9/11 has been killed in a terrorist attack by anyone from the seven Muslim countries named in his ban, or that national security experts have said the ban will not make America safer.
Likewise, Trump—blaming undocumented immigrants for reducing wages and jobs, sapping American resources, and “bad hombres” for drugs and crime—has ordered increased border enforcement to stop and deport all unauthorized immigrants. Never mind studies have shown the majority of 11 million undocumented immigrants are productive, law-abiding tax payers. Furthermore, immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than people born in the U.S.
Trump’s initial ban barring the return of permanent residents and visa holders from seven mostly-Muslim countries has been struck down in the courts, as has a subsequent attempt. Twenty thousand Chinese laborers with re-entry permits did not fare as well in 1888. After visiting their families in China, the Scott Act barred their return.
Trump claims his Muslim ban is temporary. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was also supposed to be a temporary measure enacted for ten years, but was renewed for ten more with the 1892 Geary Act. This act required all Chinese to register for Certificates of Residence or risk imprisonment and deportation—similar to the Muslim registry that was established after 9/11. By 1904, the Exclusion Act was made permanent, and in subsequent years, Congress passed additional laws to exclude immigration from Japan, South Asia, and the Philippines, and to restrict immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries.
If Trump’s temporary ban continues to follow the trajectory of Chinese Exclusion, it could prove as long lasting and far reaching. Already, on the coattails of Trump reducing the cap on refugees by 50 percent, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has introduced a bill that will likewise reduce legal immigration “and give working Americans a fair shot at wealth creation.”
Trump’s inflammatory and divisive rhetoric and actions have led to a climate of racial hatred and religious intolerance, resulting in a surge of hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Jews. Throughout the country, mosques have been vandalized and burned; Jewish cemeteries desecrated and community centers threatened with bombing; Muslim women and children harassed in the streets and schools; and Muslims and South Asians attacked and killed by men shouting, “ISIS, ISIS,” and “Go back to your own country.” Back in the 1880s, the demand “Chinese Must Go” escalated into murderous mobs storming Chinese settlements, looting, lynching, burning, and expelling them. One of the worst massacres occurred in Rock Springs, Wyoming, when a mob of armed white men opened fire on defenseless Chinese miners, killing 28, wounding 15, and burning all 79 Chinese homes.
RESISTANCE TO EXCLUSION
Refusing to be driven away, Chinese fought back through diplomatic channels, public protest, and litigation. The Chinese consulate repeatedly protested anti-Chinese laws and violence, reminding the U.S. government of its treaty obligations to protect the rights and lives of Chinese subjects. Community leaders and organizations like the Chinese Six Companies wrote articles in the newspapers defending the Chinese and sent petitions to the President and Congress protesting Chinese exclusion. They also hired white attorneys to challenge anti-Chinese laws and immigration officials’ exclusion decisions. In the landmark case of Wong Kim Ark v. United States (1898), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an American-born Chinese who had been refused re-entry into the country, stating all persons born in the United States are citizens and cannot be stripped of their rights regardless of race or the immigration status of their parents. However, when 100,000 Chinese, in a courageous act of civil disobedience, refused to obey the 1892 order to register for Certificates of Residence, they lost that court battle and were forced to comply.
On May 16, 1905, Shanghai merchants joined the fight to pressure the United States into modifying its stringent anti-Chinese immigration policies by calling for a boycott of American imports. Within a short time, the boycott spread throughout China and was sustained for ten months. Although the Chinese government did cave into political pressure from President Roosevelt and halted the boycott, it secured the President’s promise that the Immigration Service would treat Chinese immigrants less harshly.
Chinese, desperate to escape political and economic instability in China, circumvented the unjust exclusion laws however they could, becoming the country’s first “illegal” immigrants. Some slipped into the country from Mexico or Canada. Others entered by falsely claiming exempt status as merchants or U.S. citizens, or as family members–“paper sons” and “paper daughters”–of these exempt classes. In response, the Immigration Service doubled down on patrolling the borders, detaining Chinese applicants for extreme vetting, conducting raids and mass deportations—exactly what Trump’s administration is doing today.
Initially, the greatest trouble spot for Chinese “illegal” immigration was at the Mexican border, so that was where the Immigration Service concentrated their resources. As many as 80 immigration officers were assigned to patrol the border, apprehend those caught in the act, and deport them. The officers systematically searched all railcars traveling from Mexico to the U.S. They also conducted undercover investigations of Chinese smuggling and sweeping raids in the Chinese community.
One could say that enforcing Chinese Exclusion at the border was a trial run for the control of Mexican immigration in later years. Today, the Mexican border has become a militarized zone designed to stop undocumented immigration from Mexico at any cost. The U.S. spends $4 billion every year on the latest technology, building walls, and paying as many as 20,000 agents to patrol the border around the clock. Still that is not enough for Trump, who has called for building a “Great Wall” (costing $20 billion) and the hiring of 5,000 more border patrol officers despite unauthorized entries at the border being at its lowest level.
DETENTION AND EXTREME VETTING
The Chinese Exclusion Act gave birth to the bureaucratic machinery that enforces U.S. immigration laws, including immigration inspectors and detention facilities. The immigration station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was built in 1910 to better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese immigrants underwent longer examinations, interrogations, and detentions than any other ethnic group. They were subjected to invasive examinations of their blood and waste products to detect parasitic and contagious diseases. Applicants and witnesses were asked minute details about family history, relationships, living arrangements, and everyday life in the village. The most innocent discrepancy in a response could mean exclusion and deportation. Often, these interrogations went on for days. Even those with legitimate claims sometimes failed the exam. Despite the State Department’s position that the vetting process for refugees coming to the U.S. is highly rigorous, taking as long as two years, Trump is demanding what he calls “extreme vetting,” subjecting Muslim applicants to even more challenges in overcoming religious-racial assumptions about their fitness for inclusion.
Given the arduous process and long delays, Chinese were detained at Angel Island for weeks and months at a time (up to two years for those appealing their cases). They were kept locked up in quarters that government inspectors declared overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe; fed shoddy food; and forbidden visitors until their cases had been settled. To vent their anger and frustrations, many of the men wrote and carved poems into the barrack walls. Still visible today, the poems give witness to the indignity and trauma they suffered while imprisoned on Angel Island.
Since 9/11, as many as 400,000 immigrants and refugees—mainly people of color including Chinese–have been detained annually in a patchwork of federal detention centers, state and county jails, and privately-run prisons all over the country, with incarceration periods averaging 37 days to 10 months (the longest so far being 9 years), and under far worse conditions than at Angel Island. Detainees have complained about overcrowded quarters, inadequate medical care, poor food, lack of access to legal counsel, and sexual and physical abuse. Since 2003, 165 people have died while in detention, more than half due to poor medical care.
Yet Trump has ordered an expansion in detention facilities to accommodate all the unauthorized immigrants he plans to catch at the border as well as those living in the country. Under his administration, everyone caught crossing the border without authorization will be detained until they are removed from the country. Furthermore, he condones the continued use of private contractors, even though their facilities are poorly run due to the lack of federal oversight and staff trained in immigration law enforcement.
RAIDS AND MASS DEPORTATION
Under Trump’s order for expedited removals, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been given additional resources and wide latitude for raids and the deportation of anyone they find in the country without documentation, not just those convicted of serious crimes. The groups at risk of deportation now include anyone charged with a criminal offense, such as crossing the border, abusing any public benefit program, or posing as a risk to public safety or national security. In short, the President’s goal is to make good on his campaign promise to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Here, too, history is repeating itself. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act gave peace officers and U.S. marshals the authority to arrest and deport any Chinese person suspected of being in the country “illegally.” That included people who had not maintained their exempt status (merchants, teachers, students, tourists) under which they were admitted. A reign of terror descended upon the Chinese community in the early 1900s, when immigration officers began aggressively raiding places of business and private residences in search of “illegal” immigrants. Residents complained about their brutal tactics–smashing down doors, unlawful searching of baggage and trunks, insulting and physically abusing Chinese under their control, fabricating statements and writing misleading reports in the process. Thousands of Chinese immigrants were deported as a result.
In the 1950s, federal agents raided Chinatown businesses, organizations, even cemeteries looking for evidence to deport “illegal” immigrants who were pro-Communist China. Chinese community leaders brokered a controversial agreement with the government, thereby reducing the specific number of indictments and deportations, but increasing the potential for accusations and interrogations. All Chinese, legal or not, suffered fear and trauma from the omnipresent threats.
During the Great Depression, U.S. government officials and local police rounded up Mexicans and Mexican Americans in deportation raids and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that led to more than one million people being repatriated to Mexico without the legal right to ever return. Over two thousand Filipinos were also sent back to the Philippines as a result of the Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935. Today’s drastic and sweeping actions taken by the federal government in the name of national security are again wreaking havoc in immigrant communities—threatening constitutional protections, destabilizing families, undermining worker rights, and creating an atmosphere of fear, chaos, and trauma.
THE IMPACT AND LEGACY OF CHINESE EXCLUSION
The same race prejudice that produced Exclusion led to the internment of Japanese Americans, native as well as foreign born, during World War II. With China a wartime ally, however, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act as a good will gesture. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose Executive Order 9066 was responsible for Japanese internment, called Chinese Exclusion a “historic mistake.” Finally, Chinese aliens were able to become naturalized citizens. Yet only 105 Chinese were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. each year. Not until Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was racial and national discrimination at last erased from our immigration laws and Chinese immigration put on a par with that of other nations.
By then, sixty years of Chinese exclusion had devastated the Chinese American community. The Chinese population in America was drastically reduced. Chinese laborers, unable to send for their wives from China, were condemned to a bachelor’s existence. Equally damaging were the psychological wounds inflicted upon Chinese immigrants and their children—the implication that they were racial inferiors, social pariahs, and perpetual foreigners unfit to become Americans. Some, denied the American dream, returned to China. Those who stayed were forced to live in Chinatown ghettos and in the shadows of society, in constant fear of detection and deportation by immigration authorities until the day they died.
Even today, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Americans born to immigrants who came to the U.S. under false identities continue to carry the psychological burden from the effects of enforced deception, threat of deportation, families broken by Exclusion. Now millions of undocumented families, living under the Trump regime, fear family separation and forced removal from homes, lives built over decades.
For a long time, Chinese American organizations pressed Congress to publicly acknowledge the error of Chinese Exclusion. In 2012, a mere five years ago, they succeeded when both Houses of Congress passed resolutions to express regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act, which “resulted in the persecution and political alienation of persons of Chinese descent, unfairly limited their civil rights, legitimized racial discrimination, and induced trauma that persists with the Chinese community today.” The resolutions also reaffirm Congress’ commitment to preserve the civil rights and constitutional protections for all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
That commitment must hold firm against codifying Trump’s unjust, racist and Islamophobic Executive Orders into law. Indeed, Congress must actively oppose the President’s ill-conceived immigration agenda, which stands to cost taxpayers $600 billion. As a people who know too well the tragic consequences of Exclusion, Chinese Americans stand in defense and in solidarity with Muslims, immigrants, and refugees who are being targeted today. As a country that has benefitted greatly from the contributions of immigrants, it is the responsibility of all Americans to help fulfill the promise of our Constitution for a more perfect Union.
 Denis Kearney, “Appeal from California, The Chinese Invasion, Workingmen’s Address,” Indianapolis Times, February 28, 1878; John Bigler, “Governor’s Special Message,” Daily Alta California, April 25, 1852.
 Norman Asing, “To His Excellency Gov. Bigler,” Daily Alta California, May 5, 1852; “A Memorial from Representative Chinamen in America to President U.S. Grant, 1881.
 ABC News, “What the U.S. Vetting Process is Like for Refugee Families,” January 31, 2017.
 See poems and oral histories collected in Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website.
 Immigration Prof, “Southern Poverty Law Center Report: Abuse, Neglect Common at Immigrant Detention Centers in South,” November 21, 2016; Immigration Prof, “Death by Detention,” November 5, 2016; American Civil Liberties Union, “Immigration Detention Conditions.”
The Anti-Chinese Wall—The American Wall Goes Up as the Chinese Original Goes Down,” by Friedrich Graetz, Puck, March 29, 1882. American workers construct a wall against Chinese immigration while across the sea, Chinese workers dismantle the Great Wall to welcome trade with the West.
“A Statue for Our Harbor,” by George Frederick Keller, The Wasp, November 11, 1881. California’s Statue of Liberty symbolizes how Chinese immigrants, laden with “Filth, Immorality, Diseases, and Ruin to White Labor,” will overrun the West and destroy the nation itself.
“What Shall We Do with Our Boys?” by George Frederick Keller, The Wasp, March 3, 1882. Chinese laborers are blamed for the unemployment of American boys.