When Mom passed away recently, her niece, my cousin, flew into town for the funeral. Later that evening as we sat around the dinner table, my cousin asked questions about her aunt. Most of the stories that my dad told in response were ones that I had heard many times before. How Mom’s and Dad’s respective families had fled the communist takeover of mainland China and landed in Taiwan. How some family members on both sides had been left behind as the curtain descended. How they had met each other while working for the Taiwan post office. How they had immigrated to the U.S. as masters students at Brigham Young University. And how I was the first baby born to the community of Chinese students there – quite possibly the first Chinese baby born in Provo, UT.
Almost as an aside, Dad mentioned something that I had never heard before – that he and Mom had once been divorced. My grasp of Mandarin is not the best so at first I figured that I had simply misunderstood him. But as he continued talking, it became undeniable that I had heard correctly. Although married in Taiwan, Mom and Dad had divorced, immigrated to the U.S., and then remarried again. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” my dad explained, “U.S. immigration officials would not grant visas for married couples. They only gave visas to single students.”
I immediately understood why. Prior to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, there was a strict quota based on nationality that discriminated blatantly against Chinese and other immigrants of non-Western European origin. U.S. immigration policy sought to “preserve” the county as a “white” nation. The U.S. would not have granted student visas to a Chinese married couple as they would be much more likely to have a child while in the U.S., who would then pave the way to permanent residency and citizenship. I sat there at the dinner table stunned both by the revelation of a family secret that I had never known and also by the lengths to which my parents were willing to go in order to get into the U.S.
As the daughter of immigrants, I have always been sensitive to public anti-immigrant sentiment and its racial overtones. It doesn’t matter that public ire is currently directed at immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. I know that blame was once directed at people who looked like me and could easily be so again – all it takes is a spy plane incident or a weak economy to turn us from “model minority” to “yellow peril” – just as it has been directed at successive waves of people who looked and acted differently.
Indeed, as I look at the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S., I can see many similarities with the situation facing immigrants from Latin America today. Chinese immigration started in sizaeble numbers in the mid-19th century because of work available on the railroads and in mines and the lack of economic opportunity in the homeland. Their growing numbers stirred anti-immigrant sentiment even as the railroad and mining industries happily took advantage of their cheap labor. (Does that sound familiar?) The Chinese were accused of being too insular, keeping to themselves, and unable to assimilate into “American” culture. (Does that sound familiar?) Chinese migrant workers were ambushed, beaten and sometimes killed. (Does that sound familiar?)
Anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment culminated in the 1882 “Chinese Exclusion Act,” the only law passed by Congress that bars immigration and naturalization based on race. By the 1920’s, the Chinese and eventually all Asians except Filipinos (because their homeland had become a U.S. colony) were prohibited from marrying whites, owning property, and/or becoming citizens, and subject to a slew of other degrading and racist laws. While I don’t expect things to get quite that bad ever again, the actions of authorities like Sheriff Arpaio make me wonder.
Most people nowadays would argue that the immigration debate isn’t about race at all, but the rule of law. “Illegal aliens are criminals because they’ve broken the law.” It may be easier for someone whose family has been in country for generations and is not viewed as “foreigners” – most likely a white family – to say that undocumented workers are “breaking the law.” It sounds so objective, unbiased, fair… But that ignores the fact that the law itself is unfair. If the law is written such that it makes it a lot easier for one group to “obey” the law than another, then there is something wrong with the law. My parents did not do anything “illegal” per se but they took drastic steps in order to circumvent the intended purpose of the law at that time… because they knew that the law was discriminatory and unjust. To what extent would someone go who does not have the privilege of applying for student visas?
My parents took the drastic measures that they did so that they could give their future children a better life. And I am not just referring to the divorce. They left their friends and family, their native soil and their culture, all for the sake of their children. Other parents right now are going to even greater extents – braving deserts and vigilantes, breaking the “law” – driven by the same love for their children and a desperation to provide for them what they know they cannot in their homeland. We are all (or nearly all) immigrants or descended from immigrants here, no matter how long your family can trace its roots in the U.S. And all because our ancestors were looking for a better life for their progeny.