When President Donald Trump issued his executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, many lamented the measure as a striking backslide in American values of diversity and coexistence. But for Chinese-Americans, this is nothing new. It is just history repeating itself.
In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, effectively halting the entry of Chinese immigrants and preventing the naturalization of all lawful permanent residents of Chinese origin within the country for a decade. Such outright discrimination against a nationality sparked almost no controversy and was just a stepping stone to the variety of prejudiced legislation passed in the following century.
In a series of successive acts, the U.S. Congress barred the entry of even Chinese-Americans with residency permits, before passing laws requiring them to carry photo identification at all times and later extending this austerity to immigrants from Japan and India with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924.
This legislation remained in effect until the Magnuson Act of 1943, and even then. hostilities against Chinese-Americans endured. Unfortunately, the repeal of the legislation came not as the fruit of public backlash, but merely as a shift in the diplomatic agenda of the United States during World War II.
Ironically, as China became a U.S. ally against the Japanese in the war, the end of discriminatory legislation against one group marked the beginning of systematic oppression of another — Japanese-Americans. In 1943, as Chinese immigrants were again allowed to enter this “land of the free,” 110,000 of their fellow Asian-Americans lost freedom seemingly overnight, as they were incarcerated in internment camps.
Echoes of this legislation can still be found today.
First, even if the travel ban is temporarily blocked by a federal judge, Trump’s powerful political rhetoric introduces ideas of the far right to the mainstream agenda, unleashing its hidden malice. For example, Chinatown, now seen merely as a center of culture, was once the historical manifestation of mounting hostility and rampant hate crimes.
The incessant legislation against Chinese-Americans directly affected public opinions, drastically justified the open animosity toward this group and rendered the community more vulnerable than ever. At that time, and in the long term, such rhetoric forced Chinese immigrants to retreat to these cultural enclaves. A majority of the members retreated to Chinatown to avoid the prevalent aggression. Afraid to step out of the borders in search of better opportunities, such families were trapped in generational poverty.
Furthermore, while “halting” the entry of the immigrants from targeted nations might not seem to be as appalling as outright closing the border to them forever, history tells us that such laws automatically intensify themselves. As soon as we embark on this slope, inertia will take us down the hill. In fact, the ban on Chinese immigrants was not made permanent all at once, either.
Initially, the government solely wanted to temporarily assuage the strain of the excessive foreign labor force on native-born unemployment for a decade. When the law approached its expiration date, it was extended for another decade. Afterwards, similar legislation followed suit and permanently solidified such deplorable prejudice.
Finally, a close look at the United States’ history of xenophobic legislation reveals many common themes that link current events to the past. Scapegoating and the fear of change were the primary justification for such policies, as they are now.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted due to soaring unemployment and declining wages. On the West Coast, the public attributed these economic misfortunes to competition from hardworking newcomers.
Thus, Chinese immigrants became the scapegoats for the national economic downturn. At the same of time, the fear of changing the status quo moved the legislation one step further towards the extremity. The original wording of the Immigration Act of 1924 claimed that the discrimination against people of Asian and African descent was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”
Today, a court order can scrap the travel ban, but it cannot eradicate its hostility. The long-lasting setback, whether through the political rhetoric, the self-perpetuating trend, leaves a mark on the public mentality in the most insidious way. Our country ought to know this; we have seen it before.
Yi Bao is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.