Nashville, Tenn.

Exclusion, Now & Then

By Tom Lee

The China Southern jet cut through a night and another day over the Pacific Ocean, bearing 18 infants from orphanages and foster homes in rural southeastern China to forever homes in the United States.

Each child onboard  —  including our 10-month-old daughter, Virginia — had been adopted in the torpor of mid-level Chinese government offices. Each carried a Chinese passport and a U.S. visa. By virtue of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 — a generous act of compassion by our Republican Congress and Democratic president — each would, therefore, become an American citizen automatically upon admission to the country.

We were already a family. In the thwack of a passport stamp at Los Angeles International Airport on May 30, 2001, Virginia became an American. Now 15, she’s driving on a learner's permit and will vote in Nashville’s next mayoral election.

It wasn’t always that easy. There was a time when Chinese persons, regardless of age, could not enter the United States, much less receive the benefits of instant citizenship.

That time seemed a relic from the days of clipper ships and golden spikes. It did, anyway, until a leading candidate for president proposed to exclude an entire class of persons, more than a billion worldwide, from our country on the basis of their religion. While persons of goodwill, regardless of party, have dismissed the idea, saying it could never happen, they’re wrong.

Because it already has.

It began, as so much in history, with a rush to gold. The Northern California gold rush didn’t just lure 49ers. Some 25,000 Chinese came to California in 1852, the first great wave of immigration on our Pacific shores.

The Chinese weren’t the first, of course, to hear the New World’s siren song. Eighty years into the American experiment, however, was ample time for domestic prejudice to take root. Claim-seekers who had overlanded from the East feared that Chinese miners were merely indentured servants, working mines for next to nothing and sending treasure back across the western sea. Strikes by whites and violence against the Chinese were common.

The Chinese soon left the mines and went to equally dangerous work building the Central Pacific railroad through the Sierra mountains. As that project ended in 1869, they entered a field open on the American frontier to those with a strong back and little shame: the laundry business.

Laundries of the rural 19th-century West were rarities, often little more than a stove, a pot and an ample supply of water. They met a need, however, and as often happens in a market economy, a growing supply created its own demand. It also created resentment from those unable (or unwilling) to compete.

Such resentment gained purchase in willing political majorities. As David Bernstein outlined in a 1999 article in the William & Mary Law Review, Oregon prohibited Chinese nationals from working on city public works projects, San Francisco, too. The cigar makers’ union in California put a white label on its product and warned against subsidizing “the Coolie standard of life and work.” In 1879, the racist Workingman’s Party received 45 percent of the popular vote in the California gubernatorial election, and captured numerous local offices. Across the West, Chinese laundries were nearly regulated out of business. More than one case challenging the protectionist regulations reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

All of this culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed by Congress on May 6, 1882, it stated, simply, “The coming of Chinese laborers to the United States … is hereby, suspended.” Any ship’s captain bringing a Chinese national to America faced jail time.

The Exclusion Act was no blip on history’s radar. It remained the law of the United States until 1943, well into the lifetime of my parents. For 60 years, America shut its doors to the world’s largest country.

Of course, we encountered none of that when we brought Virginia home. A friend met us at LAX with flags and balloons. Our first American meal together was pizza in a Latino neighborhood near the airport. When we arrived home, the mayor of Nashville met us at the airport gate.

One-hundred and three days later, it was September 11, 2001, and no one meets anyone at airport gates anymore. Ever since, we have resumed our long national dialogue about who should and shouldn’t enter the country on the basis of national origin or religion.

Much is said about history as prologue, that those who forget it are doomed to repeat it. These days, I think instead of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

We were blessed those days in China and California, where we made an American family in places foreign and domestic. Since then, in joys and struggles, Virginia witnesses daily to our nation’s hopes and, when we’re honest, our fears, too.

For our past isn’t dead, none of it.