ABCs and Lessons Learned

May 21, 2010 

Requiring those perceived as aliens to carry proof of citizenship is not a new phenomenon. It was a common practice required of ABCs (American Born Chinese) subjected to restrictive immigration laws beginning shortly after the Gold Rush of 1849 through the mid 20th Century. Iris Chang in her book The Chinese in America presents a compelling narrative of the Chinese American experience illustrating American racism in a different hue as profound as the contrast between black and white. California state and federal codes are replete with acts and statutes hostile to Asian Americans. The Chinese American experience is another shameful chapter in American history and particularly American jurisprudence.

No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s. Lynching, boycotts and mass explulsion. (John Higham, Stranger in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925) Untold numbers of Chinese were deported from 1890 to 1920, according to Chang the number of male Chinese in the United States (at the time 95% of the Chinese population dropped from 103,620 to 85,341). Men were awakened and dragged from their homes under cover of night. During the raids, inspectors often demanded to see residence certificates needed by Chinese to stay in the United States. Inspectors often confiscated the documents without providing receipts, causing the owners months of agony, knowing they could not prove their legitimate right to reside in the United States. If the Chinese could not produce the certificate, they were expected to explain how they had lost them, which was impossible for many to do. Some immigrants exhausted their entire life savings paying legal bills and hiring detectives to locate witnesses to testify on their behalf.

The deportation process was horrendous. According to a 1913 report compiled by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chinese American League of Justice of Los Angeles, the Chinese deportees were packed into railroad cars “unfit for the transportation of cattle,” poorly fed, and then herded into the holds of ships, where there endured “real torture, especially in the summertime,” when the ship sailed to the equator. With constant danger of such deportation hanging over their heads the Chinese were vulnerable to legally sanctioned blackmail and could be fleeced mercilessly by officials and hoodlums alike. (Chang) The Supreme Court conferred jurisdiction to the secretary of commerce and labor to hear immigration matters with determinations decidedly final and without judicial review. U.S. citizenship was commonly stripped from Americans of Chinese descent. The law and actions proved to be embarrassing when China and the United States became allies during World War II.

During economic downturn the defenseless become scapegoats. Americans should not repeat the lessons of the past. The Constitution and its protections of due process and equal protection cannot be lightly tossed aside. Respecting rights of all men native or foreign born is fundamental to our constitution and core values.

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