The Chinese American experience, with its trials and triumphs, comes
to mind every December 17, the anniversary of the 1943 repeal by
Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882. With only a few
exceptions, this law barred any Chinese from immigrating to the United
States, and marked the first time U.S. immigration policy singled out
citizens of a particular nation for wholesale discrimination.
This dark period in U.S. history was born out of the widely held
belief that the Chinese were incapable of "assimilation" into American
society. Nevertheless, despite more than 60 years of systematic
disenfranchisement, Chinese continued to migrate to the United States
because it remained a country where they could find employment and
fulfill many of their dreams.
Today, the United States is experiencing a period of sizable
immigration from China. According to the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS), 664,812 Chinese immigrated to the United
States from 1990 through 2000. Chinese and other Asian immigrants are
now often called the "Model Minority" because their children quickly
attain relatively high levels of education (21.6 percent of Chinese
Americans had a bachelors degree in 1990 vs. 13.1 percent of the total
U.S. population) and relatively high incomes (the median income of
Chinese Americans was $41,316 in 1989 vs. $35,225 for the total U.S.
Even so, new challenges face the Chinese community as it seeks to
expand its involvement in the American political process and toist
large numbers of new immigrants to integrate into U.S. society. In
addition, the problemsociated with human smugglers, or
"snakeheads," have grown to serious proportions. While the Chinese
community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination
and poverty over the decades, obstacles remain.
There are records of Chinese immigrants in California as early as
1815, and Chinese students were brought by missionaries to
Massachusetts for schooling in 1847. However, the first large wave of
Chinese immigration to the United States began during the California
gold rush in 1848. The immigrants themselves referred to the United
States as the "Golden Mountain." In the years that followed, the
Chinese - especially those coming from the Canton area of south China
- worked in mining, construction, and the building of the
intercontinental railroad. By the 1870s there were over 63,000 Chinese
immigrants in the country. Although most lived in California, many had
moved eastward into cities such as New York.
However, the United States suffered through a depression in the 1870s
that was particularly severe in California. This economic downturn fed
strong anti-Chinese attitudes that sometimes turned violent. The
Chinese were willing to work for lower wages than "whites" and were
more reluctant to unionize, which led U.S. labor leaders to label them
"cheap working slaves." The result was virulent resentment. White
Americans claimed the Chinese were stealing their jobs and draining
the United States of gold by sending much of their earnings back to
relatives in China.
Congress was pressured to investigate these claims and by 1880 the
U.S. government bowed to anti-Chinese sentiments and signed a treaty
with China permitting the United States to limit, but not completely
prohibit, Chinese immigration. In 1882 there were 110,000 Chinese in
the country. Congress claimed that "the coming of Chinese laborers to
this country endangers the good order of certain localities" and on
December 17, 1882, passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act.
The new law halted all immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years
and prohibited Chinese already residing in the United States from
obtaining citizenship. The 1882 Act was renewed in 1892 and made
permanent in 1902. The Immigration Act of 1917 expanded the
prohibition against immigrant laborers to nearly all Asian countries,
including the Middle East and India, creating "an Asiatic barred
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