Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration amendment that has enabled immigrants from around the world to enter the United States.
The May 7 panel discussion “Immigration in Context” took place at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle to examine how immigration for Asians and other ethnic minorities has changed over the years and what still needs to be done regarding immigration justice.
Before an audience of about 50 people, emcee and communications specialist for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance Joaquin Uy introduced panelists Chandan Reddy, associate professor at the University of Washington; Soya Jung, senior partner at the Asian American political lab Changelab; Ray Corona, executive director of the Washington Dream Act Coalition; and Maru Mora Villalpando, a community organizer, political analyst, and founder of Latino Advocacy.
Reddy, who studies in the English and Gender, Women, and Sexuality studies departments, began the event by providing a historical summary of U.S. immigration policies.
The country’s first naturalization act took effect on March 26, 1790, 14 years after it declared independence from the British monarchy. Naturalization is the process immigrants undergo to become U.S. citizens.
The act specified that “any alien, being a free white person” qualified for U.S. citizenship. “Immigration and naturalization has, since the origin of the United States, been the mechanism by which we have ‘racial-ized’ people and produced racial difference as the source of citizenship,” Reddy said.
The first immigration law—Anti-Coolie law of 1862—outlawed the import of Chinese laborers in ships that were either owned or not owned by U.S. citizens.
“Immigration really does get invented by the attempt of the U.S. to regulate Asian labor in particular,” Reddy said. “And that’s one of the reasons that all of us continue to mark immigration acts and immigration stories as such a big part of our social and cultural and personal histories.”
The Page Law of 1875 barred the entry of immigrants deemed “undesirable,” including Asian women for the purpose of prostitution. For the first time, immigration expanded beyond race to include gender differences.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the years 1880 to 1916 saw a huge increase in U.S. immigration: 800,000 total immigrants in 1880 and 1,300,000 total immigrants in 1906.
Reddy said: “What we see is that much of the 20th century, it’s this ‘restrictionist’ ethos, this attempt to constantly use immigration laws to mark certain bodies as dangerous, to mark certain bodies as a threat to white labor, as a threat to security.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became the first law in a series that severely cut immigration from Asia. Barring immigration based on class and race, it arose from a growing belief that Chinese workers were racially inferior and a threat responsible for lower wages and unemployment in the United States.
Japanese immigrants with passports issued for other countries were next on the list for exclusion from U.S. immigration in the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908. Nine years later, the 1917 Immigration Act (or Asiatic Barred Zone Act) excluded even more immigrants deemed “undesirable” and Asians—Indians and Koreans, for example—from “any country not owned by the United States adjacent to the continent of Asia” and certain Pacific Islanders.
Filipino immigrants already in the country were considered as U.S. nationals in 1933, not U.S. citizens. “As colonial subjects, they were considered wards of the U.S. state,” Reddy said. “So, the U.S. state could not exclude them based upon their ‘Asian-ness’ or their non-citizenship.”
The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 abruptly limited their immigration to a quota of just 50 persons per year.
“This is a really fascinating moment in so-called immigration history,” Reddy said. It “formally declared the Philippines as a free state and not under U.S. colonial rule anymore.”
The law that governs immigration today is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (or McCarran-Walter Act) with subsequent changes. It cancels all previous exclusions of Asians and creates minimal admissions.
Reddy pointed out, “The purpose of the law was much more to drive U.S. foreign policy interests and to offer the veneer of openness while doing very little to change the racial logic of most of the immigration policies of the 20th century.”
In 1965 a major amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act took effect. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on October 3.
The Hart-Celler Act, as it’s also known as, replaces the national-origins quota system begun in 1924—restricting admission to two percent of the total number of people in each nationality as reported in the 1890 census—with a preference system focused on distributing visas more fairly to increase family reunification and attract more white-collar immigrants.
Jung said about the Asian American civil rights movement: “In order to push back against war, imperialism, and racism deeply linked to capitalism, it needed to forge strong alliances with the American Indian movement, with the Black Power movement, with the Chicano movement, with liberation movements around the world.”
“We saw this playing out here in Seattle,” she added, mentioning the members of the Gang of Four: the late Bernie Whitebear, Bob Santos, the late Roberto Maestas, and King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.
She says they not only addressed racism here, they also knew their efforts “were deeply international and saw the linkages between the movements in those communities.”
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 has brought about “not only a huge and vastly expanded ethnic diversity, there’s also a vastly expanded class diversity and political diversity within the Asian American population.”
When discussing Asian Americans cooperation for immigration justice, she said, “I wonder if the kind of solidarity that we’re seeking today demands less policy action and more just teaching, study, and conversations.”
For more information about immigrant visas, visit travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/immigrate/immigrant-process.html.