Friday, March 10, 2006

Bredesen meets Chinese ambassor; immigration deja vu

Bredesen and Chinese ambassador

Governor Bredesen and Ambassador Zhou Wen Zhong

According to this press release, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen met with the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. on Wednesday, March 8. The two discussed the trade relationship between China and the Volunteer State.

Their topic could easily have been "illegal immigration," because the idea of such a thing - making immigration illegal - was first implanted in the U.S. legal system in 1882, to exclude all immigrants from China from entry into the U.S. The 1882 law, known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, wasn't repealed until more than forty years later, in 1943, when Congress allowed 105 immigrants a year from China. (One can almost hear the public disclaiming no ill will for Chinese immigrants, just the illegal ones.) The draconian U.S.-imposed limits on Chinese immigration were not repealed until the law changed in 1965, when limits remained, but at least they were decoupled from national origin, in the context of the civil rights movement.

How did it come to pass that this country even adopted a law that blocked people who wanted to come here, and why China? Governor Bredesen might have provided some insight into the first part of that question, considering the parallels to the modern political winds in Tennessee:

As time passed, the resentment against the Chinese increased from those who could not compete with them. Acts of violence against the Chinese continued for decades, mostly from white urban and agricultural workers. In 1862 alone, eighty-eight Chinese were reported murdered. Though large landowners that hired Chinese, railroads and other large white-owned businesses, and Chinese workers themselves pushed against a growing anti-Chinese legislation, the forces opposing the Chinese prevailed, issuing laws that excluded or harassed them from industry after industry. Mob violence steadily increased against the Chinese until even employers were at risk. Eventually, laws such the Naturalization Act of 1870 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted immigration of Chinese immigrants into the U.S.

A few years later, in 1885, a public fundraising campaign was underway for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. (The statue would be unveiled in 1886, the brainchild of two Frenchmen who were inspired by the liberty granted to freed slaves in the U.S.) Saum Song Bo, an aspiring citizen and attorney who could be neither under the new Chinese Exclusion Act, could not find it in himself to contribute to the pedestal fund. He wrote this letter in response.

Sir: A paper was presented to me yesterday for inspection, and I found it to be specially drawn up for subscription among my countrymen toward the Pedestal Fund of the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty. Seeing that the heading is an appeal to American citizens, to their love of country and liberty, I feel that my countrymen and myself are honored in being thus appealed to as citizens in the cause of liberty. But the word liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese. I consider it as an insult to us Chinese to call on us to contribute toward building in this land a pedestal for a statue of liberty. That statue represents liberty holding a torch which lights the passage of those of all nations who come into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? As for the Chinese who are here, are they allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Are they allowed to go about everywhere free from the insults, abuses, assaults, wrongs, and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free?

If there be a Chinaman who came to this country when a lad, who has passed through an American institution of learning of the highest grade, who has so fallen in love with American manners and ideas that he desires to make his home in this land, and who, seeing that his countrymen demand one of their own number to be their legal adviser, representative, advocate, and protector, desires to study law, can he be a lawyer? By the law of this nation, he, being a Chinaman, cannot become a citizen, and consequently cannot be a lawyer...

Whether this statute against the Chinese or the statue of liberty will be the more lasting monument to tell future ages of the liberty and greatness of this country, will be known only to future generations.

Liberty, we Chinese do love and adore thee; but let not those who deny thee to us, make of thee a graven image and invite us to bow down to it.

Saum Song Bo

Our "illegal" Hispanic friends in Nashville would seem to have a sympathetic ear with Ambassador Zhou Wen Zhong. Whether that sympathy can be found in the Tennessee state capitol in 2006 is a question to be answered not only by the language and legislation of our elected representatives, but also by Governor Bredesen's signature.

sources: Saum Song Bo letter, Statue of Liberty history, Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigration history, Governor Bredesen press release

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