Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A formal Senate apology for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

The Beijing-based blog has rounded up three news reports on a story that resonates deeply in California, but which was buried somewhat this weekend amid other news as the governor signed and vetoed bills. Last Thursday night, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution apologizing for past laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants, notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The law was enacted during a time in U.S. history that immigration from China was perceived as a national threat. It prohibited most Chinese immigration for a decade and barred those already in the U.S. from becoming citizens, among other things. The law wasn't repealed until 1943.

A companion resolution is pending in the House. While it can be argued that nothing undoes the damage that shaped the Chinese American experience, both apologies are formal acknowledgments of wrongdoing. posted some background:

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese population in America declined from over 140,000 in the mid-19th century to 75,000 in 1940. Those who remained were permanently classified as foreigners because they were barred from naturalizing as U.S. citizens.

Most Chinese immigrants confronted a stark reality in terms of their family life. While husbands worked in the United States, wives and children remained in China. Chinatown was known as a “bachelor society.” Men hesitated to travel to China because it was difficult to get the certificate needed for reentry to the U.S.

Human smuggling proliferated. For example, some Chinese merchants lawfully in the U.S., who were allowed to bring dependents to the U.S., falsely testified that unrelated children were their sons and daughters. Other “paper” sons and daughters were created when the 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco’s City Hall and Hall of Records, leading to false claims of U.S. citizenship by birth. To pass official interrogations, which often took place at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco and could last for weeks or months, these “paper” sons and daughters would memorize coaching books with specific information about family histories and ancestral villages (“How many water buffalo were there in your village?”).

The Act’s worst legacy is that it reinforced stereotypes that Chinese immigrants are dangerous, inferior, “alien,” un-American, and unwilling or unable to assimilate.