In 1986, during the height of the Reagan administration, immigration legislation was passed. 20 later another Republican president would attempt it again, unsuccessfully. With a present-day comprehensive immigration bill being marked up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, it looks like 2013 will finally be the year of comprehensive immigration legislation that could significantly alter the future political and economic prospects for this country. With so much at stake — a presidential legacy, millions of potential votes, generations of contributing American citizens — for the future, what can the lessons (if any) of the past reveal?
Almost a century and half earlier, the nation's first immigration reform began with deep racial anti-Chinese discrimination, reflecting a growing disdain for an immigrant minority group that had contributed greatly to American growth and prosperity.
The Page Act of 1875 was the first America immigration law passed that attempted to directly restrict immigration into the United States. Named after Representative Horace Page, a Republican from California, the act provisioned the prohibition of contract labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary"; the prohibition of immigration of Chinese prostitutes; and the exclusion of convicts and women "imported for the purposes of prostitution" from all countries.
The Page Act attempted to establish a "moral" basis for restricting immigration by disallowing those deemed undesirable by society (contracted workers, indentured servants, prostitutes, felons). On the surface, these restrictions did not seem all too unreasonable.
Chinese immigration was welcomed in the beginning of the 18th century, as the expansion of the American West necessitated a labor force to increase economic development. The Chinese were cheap labor and had the reputation of being hard workers. The California Gold Rush of 1848 brought a huge influx of immigrants seeking fortune. One of the largest immigrant groups was the Chinese. In 1852 alone, 20,000 Chinese workers arrived in California.
However, the aftermath of the American Civil War left the economy in shambles and workers without jobs. Americans and European immigrants feared competition from Chinese and Asian immigrants. Those on the West Coast were especially prone to blame the despised Chinese for declining wages and the economic ills of the time. Although the Chinese composed less than .002% of the population at that time, Congress began to effectively limit the flow of Chinese immigration into the U.S. under the disguise of "moral" rationale in order to placate worker demands and maintain white "racial purity." Chinese women were appallingly discriminated against. Chinese women were so heavily screened by U.S. customs officials that in the months prior to the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), of the 40,000 Chinese immigrants who entered the U.S., only 136 of them were women. The subsequent and blatantly racist passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Scott Act of 1888, and the extensions of the Exclusion Acts in 1892 and 1902 leave little room to argue that the Page Act was not ratified because of racial discrimination and economic gripe.
Economics. Morality. Politics ramifications. They say history repeats itself, and there is some truth to the matter. 130 years later and, unfortunately, we cannot say that our laws that deal with immigrants and outsiders have been cleansed of racism and prejudice — just look no further than xenophobic states like Arizona and Alabama, among many.
In the discussion of federal benefits to non-citizens and economic viability, or whether or not citizenship should be granted for those who came here illegally, let us not forget the lessons of the past and our American belief in the ideals of opportunity and social mobility. There are reminders of America's connection to immigrants even in our most beloved American relics.
Within list the grievances against King George III located in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, our nation's most cherished symbol of liberty, the complaint of restrictions on immigrants to the colonies illustrates their importance to American success:
"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
Even Lady Liberty herself stands as gateway to opportunity and a welcome to foreigners and Americans alike. Emma Lazarus's poem The New Colossus is graven on the tablet within the pedestal that Liberty stands upon and offers a message of inclusion and hope for those struggling:
The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus, 1883
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
The narrative of the immigration debate in 2013 has been framed by the principles of fairness and opportunity, and duked out over the details of the legislation. It has focused on, among many other things, its economic feasibility (both real and perceived) border control, a pathway to citizenship, and the benefits of bringing highly skilled workers to boost American competitiveness. There are also political imperatives for both parties to either honor their party base or attract a vital electorate.
Immigration is an American principle. America was built on the backs of immigrants. The Chinese helped settle the West and built the Transcontinental Railway. They were then largely banned from entering the country until World War II. Imagine what else the Chinese could have contributed to the American narrative if they were given more of a chance. Imagine what we might stand to lose if we repeat the mistakes of the past.