In contemplating the impact of the recent Executive Order, I am reminded of similar moments in U.S. history. In 1851, 25,000 Chinese lived in the U.S., working primarily in the American West in difficult conditions. They suffered terrible racism, and were continually harassed in person and at the legislative level: the Sidewalk Ordinance of 1870 disallowed the use of poles to carry groceries or laundry, while the Queue Ordinance of 1873 banned Chinese men from wearing their hair in the traditional braided style. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed a law prohibiting further immigration by Chinese laborers. The law was renewed in the 1892 Geary Act and 12 years later was permanently accepted as federal law. In 1924, the Immigration Act—also known as the Asian Exclusion Act—aimed to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity” by drastically limiting immigrants from certain countries and regions, including Asia. Supporters cited theories of eugenics and racial hygiene as inspiration. It was a dark chapter in American history.
Japanese immigrants to the U.S. also faced enormous barriers, and were uniquely targeted during World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of people of Japanese descent—many of them U.S. citizens—in camps across the West. More than 130,000 Japanese Americans were interned until 1945. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to apologize for the prejudiced and illegal actions of the government, and provided a modest payment to each survivor.
Chinese, Japanese and many other groups of Asian immigrants to the United States persisted in pursuing their dreams on American shores despite these many challenges. Today the diverse population of Asian Americans—both those whose families have lived in this country for more than a century and those who have recently immigrated—is central to the continued prosperity and vitality of our nation.
As a historian of Asia who is also director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I acknowledge this American history of exclusion, discrimination and incarceration as part of the complex backdrop to the recent Executive Order of President Donald Trump. We must learn from the history that I have described above, and acknowledge our mistakes. Returning to the exclusionary policies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will not make our country safer. Rather, such a move will diminish our standing in the world, harm our economic growth, hamper our academic and research endeavors and lessen our sense of pride in the diversity of our national community.
I urge the president to rescind this order so our country can continue to prosper.
Morgan Pitelka (on leave, 2016-2017)
Director, Carolina Asia Center
Professor, Asian Studies