Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In May 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers and became the first law to prohibit a specific ethnic or national group from coming into the United States.
That law remained on the books until December 1943 and the passage of the Magnuson Act, which permitted 105 Chinese to enter the country each year. The Nationality Act of 1952 abolished direct racial blockades to immigration.
But Ted Gong, who served about 30 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, working often on immigration, refugee and border security issues, hears the echoes and feels the shock waves of the Exclusion Act into today’s immigration debate and its talk of border walls and bans on travelers from certain countries.
“The immigration debate should not be defined by nativists who say we just need to keep out the Mexicans or keep out the Muslims,” Gong, 67, said during a phone interview from his Fairfax, Va., home. “Immigration laws should not be about keeping people out because of where they are from but should be based on defining what kind of people we want in our country, people who want to help build our country, or be a hardworking Joe who wants to support his family and pay taxes.”
Gong will give a talk, titled “Remembering 1882 in Today’s Immigration Debates,” at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Albuquerque Museum. The talk is in conjunction with the museum exhibit “From Invisible to Visible: The Chinese American Experience in Albuquerque,” which continues through Jan. 6.
The Chinese Exclusion Act grew out of charges that Chinese people living in this country in the late 19th century were depressing wages because they were willing to work low-paying jobs. It not only stopped the immigration of Chinese laborers but prohibited Chinese already living here from becoming U.S. citizens. It also made the Chinese population in America the target of discrimination and violence.
Gong, who grew up in a small town near Fresno, Calif., said the act was racist.
“In the 1800s, there were (American) cities proud to have driven out all the Chinese,” he said.
Gong said just as the Chinese Exclusion Act did in the past, this country’s reaction to immigration today threatens to undermine basic fundamental rights such as birthright (citizenship) and due process of law and blurs the lines between federal and local jurisdiction.
“I am taking a historical perspective in my talk,” he said. “But I hope I can make some connections with today’s immigration debate, make people understand why we should be interested in the Chinese Exclusion Act today.”