The 1875 Page Act. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1922 Cable Act. 1922 Ozawa vs. the U.S. 1923 Thind vs. the U.S. 1942 Executive Order 9066. This is an incomplete list of the various immigration acts, Supreme Court cases and Executive Orders that have targeted Asian nationals, preventing them either from entering the United States or attaining citizenship. Now we can add the most recent executive order signed by President Trump on Jan. 27 to this list, what the Trump administration calls “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.”
If the list that opens this piece is not familiar to you, let me briefly elaborate.
The Page Act was the United States’ first restrictive immigration law that barred “undesirable” immigrant laborers, which meant those from Asian nations. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act targeted China specifically and barred skilled and unskilled laborers from entering the U.S. or becoming naturalized citizens. The 1922 Cable Act stripped U.S. citizenship from women married to “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” which at the time only applied to men from Asian nations.
Ozawa vs. U.S. (1922) and Thind vs. the U.S. (1923) were petitions to the Supreme Court by Asian nationals (Japanese and Indian respectively) for naturalization; both were denied, making any Asian immigrant who was living in the U.S. a permanent alien. And on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a reaction to the U.S.’s entry in World War II that gave the military the authority to exclude anyone they deemed a national threat from the West Coast. It effectively endangered the rights of both citizens and non-citizens since no specific ethnic group was mentioned in the order. Yet the only group that was targeted for wholesale removal were people of Japanese descent, the majority of whom were born in the U.S. and considered U.S. citizens.
Though some may look at this list and think that we have made progress – that these are vestiges of our racist past not our progressive future, what the latest executive order signals is a repetition of history. There is nothing new in the language or rationale of the latest executive order targeting specific national and ethnic groups from entering the United States.
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Indeed, who the Trump administration is targeting is in line with how Asians (and in this case many of the nations from the Middle East can be considered West Asian nations) have typically been treated in the United States. We are foreign. We are not familiar. We pray to a different god. Our native language is strange and unintelligible to American ears, and the English we speak is accented with our mother tongues – tongues that the U.S. government can’t trust because they believe they are forked and duplicitous.
None of this is new. The propaganda leveled against Chinese and other Asian nationals begun in the 19th century carries over into the 21st century: We are heathens and pagans; we have come here to steal your jobs; we threaten your American way of life; we are forever foreign and do not belong.
All of the acts, executive orders, and challenges to the Supreme Court were eventually found to be unconstitutional – they were declared to be against the very principles of the United States that the nation was founded on.
I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants. I teach Asian-American studies at a public university. I know that, in time, this latest executive order will be deemed unconstitutional. But I wish that we didn’t keep repeating the mistakes of our nation’s past.
Jennifer Ho is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the English and Comparative Literature department. She specializes in Asian-American literature and critical race theory.