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9.24.2010

guest post: the more things change, the more they stay the same - the asian american and "hot button" issues chapter

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Karin Wang on "hot button" issues.

Two of the hottest issues right now are immigration and gay marriage. Those who oppose either (or both) paint bleak images of the demise of our society with "hordes of immigrants" taking jobs away from "real Americans" and "homosexuals" destroying the "traditional family."

For those of us whose conscious memories go back to no earlier than the 1980s (which is me and the vast majority of you, the fans of Angry Asian Man), these may seem like fairly new areas of contention, the result of demographic changes unimaginable 50 years ago.

But the history of Asians in America clearly shows that in terms of discrimination and intolerance, America has (sadly) already been there and already done that. Only the last time around, it was Asian immigrants fighting for legitimacy and equality.

Were the Chinese the First "Undocumented" Immigrants?

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, giving Chinese Americans the dubious distinction of being the only racial group ever explicitly banned from the U.S. At that time, Chinese and other Asian immigrants comprised a significant proportion of the low-wage laborers in America's West. The Act was passed as part of a widespread campaign to drive out Chinese immigrants, who were accused of forcing down wages for "real Americans" (sound familiar?) and failing to assimilate (although they lived in Chinatowns because rampant discrimination prevented them from living anywhere else).

The Chinese Exclusion Act set the stage for an early iteration of the modern struggle with "undocumented" immigration. Today, the term "undocumented" (note that I don't say "illegal") evokes images of Latino migrants crossing the desert in the Southwest U.S.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese may have been the first large group of "undocumented" immigrants. After a massive 1906 earthquake destroyed San Francisco's city hall, along with all of its records, some Chinese immigrants circumvented the Chinese Exclusion Act by becoming "paper sons" of Chinese who were already here (since the Act didn't bar relatives of the Chinese who remained in the U.S.). Prohibited from legally immigrating, thousands of Chinese instead entered the U.S. in the early 1900s as "paper sons." Like most undocumented immigrants of today, the Chinese "paper sons" were born out of necessity, because there was no other way to enter the U.S. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang recently wrote a great column about these "paper sons" -- click here.

Arizona's SB 1070 is a Modern-Day Chinese Exclusion Act

SB 1070, Arizona's recently-passed immigration law, has dominated headlines for months. It requires local police to question the immigration status of anyone they lawfully stop who they "reasonably think" to be undocumented -- based on characteristics like English fluency, accent, dress and the company that one keeps. Police will de facto need to racially profile in order to decide whom to demand "papers" from.

SB 1070 may be focused on Latinos, but it affects Asian Americans as well -- including Jim Shee who, since SB 1070 was passed, has been stopped multiple times by local law enforcement and asked to produce his "papers."

In the lawsuit against SB 1070 brought by Asian Pacific American Legal Center and Asian American Justice Center, as members of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, along with other civil rights lawyers, the plaintiffs include not just Shee but several Asian American groups. Japanese American Citizens League signed on because it knows all too well where racial profiling can lead; Arizona South Asians for Safe Families joined because of fears that the law criminalized assisting undocumented domestic violence survivors; and Asian Chamber of Commerce got involved because it saw the law negatively affect immigrant-owned businesses that serve an immigrant clientele. For a thoughtful explanation as to why Asian Americans are both plaintiffs and lawyers in the challenge to SB 1070, click here for a great op-ed from my APALC colleagues, Julie Su and Connie Choi.

But even if no Asian Americans were impacted in Arizona, we should still be concerned about SB 1070 because it is a modern-day version of the Chinese Exclusion Act, albeit targeting Latinos. In addition to banning Chinese immigration to the U.S., an 1892 extension of the Act added a new requirement: all (and only) Chinese immigrants were required to carry resident certificates with them at all times upon penalty of deportation. And immigration and law enforcement officials conducted spot checks only in places where Chinese immigrants lived or worked, such as mines, canneries and lodging houses. SB 1070 clearly seeks to emulate and resurrect the worst chapter of America's anti-immigration history.

Wong Kim Ark - The Father of "Birthright Citizenship"

Besides SB 1070, the other "hot" immigration issue lately is "birthright citizenship," which grants U.S. citizenship to anyone born here. Unfortunately, there are efforts attempting to repeal this long-standing right.

Asian Americans are major beneficiaries of this policy, but very few people (whether Asian American or not) know that we owe "birthright citizenship" to a man named Wong Kim Ark. Wong was born in the late 1800s in San Francisco to two immigrants from China. His parents were already in the U.S. when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, so they could stay -- but they were prohibited from ever becoming U.S. citizens. After an immigration official denied Wong re-entry to the U.S. after a trip to China, on the grounds that Wong was not a U.S. citizen because his parents were not (and could not ever be) U.S. citizens, Wong sued the federal government. His courage resulted in an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the 14th Amendment -- which says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States ... are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside" -- meant that a child of non-citizens born in the U.S. becomes a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born here. I don't know about you, but I might not be an American if it weren't for Wong Kim Ark.

The Anti-Gay Marriage Movement Stole Their Arguments From the Anti-Interracial Marriage Movement

In 2008, California's Proposition 8 (constitutional ban on gay marriage) passed by a small margin amongst Asian American voters (54% yes to 46% no), not much more than the overall margin (52% yes to 48% no). The real story is the dramatic change in the Asian American vote on this issue from 2000 to 2008. In 2000, APALC's exit polling found that nearly 70% of Asian Americans supported Prop 22 (statutory ban on gay marriage), compared to 60% amongst voters overall. But by 2008, Asian Americans had -- amazingly -- practically eliminated the difference between the Asian American and general vote.

It turns out that one of the most effective arguments in moving Asian Americans to support marriage equality is the strong historic parallel between the struggles over marriage equality and interracial marriage, especially in California. In the 1800s, bans on interracial marriage were everywhere, and most targeted marriage between African Americans and whites. But California's anti-miscegenation law specifically singled out Asians (the 1800s were a bad time for Asian immigrants...). At first, the law banned "Mongolians" (what East Asians were called back then). Then, a Filipino man challenged the law to marry a white woman. The California courts decided that Filipinos were "Malays," separate and distinct from "Mongolians," and therefore the couple could legally wed. However, the California legislature responded by promptly inserted "Malay" into California's interracial marriage ban, making it painfully clear that Asians were the targets of the state's anti-miscegenation laws.

Although separated by more than 100 years, Asian Americans of the past and gays and lesbians of the present face often identical and indistinguishable arguments against their unions. "It's against tradition." "It's an abomination." "It's against the Bible." Even the trial court judge in Loving v. Virginia, the seminal case that in 1967 finally abolished the last remaining interracial marriage bans, argued that since God put different races on different continents, "he did not intend for the races to mix." Thankfully, he was both totally wrong and overturned. For more about Asian Americans supporting marriage equality, see this post from the one-year anniversary of the passage of Prop 8.

So Why Does This Matter?

No struggle for justice is isolated. Every successful campaign for justice is built on or linked to other struggles that preceded it, and any campaign will only succeed if it is connected to a larger movement. For Asian Americans, it's good to take a step back and see how we have benefited from those who preceded us -- such as the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s which, by breaking down barriers to racial equality, helped lift the long-standing immigration quotas on Asian and Latin American countries -- as well as to see our responsibility to support those who are today facing the battles we have already fought. And because struggles for justice are often intersecting, most of these issues today are also still "our" issues.

Karin Wang is Vice-President of Programs at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice; President of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County; and Founding Member of API Equality-LA. In other words, she works on Asian American issues 24/7, even while she's asleep.