By James Fallows
As I mentioned late last night, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution apologising for the discriminatory nature of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Here is a late 19th century cartoon that conveys the general tenor of the Act. You can read the text of the Act here and also get the idea. Memories of the era are kept alive in China, which is why the apology resolution got so much attention and acclaim in the Chinese press this week:
The resolution of regret was passed by the current US House of Representatives: John Boehner, Speaker; Eric Cantor, Majority Leader; and all members of their 50-seat Republican majority.
I think this vote made very good sense, and I am glad to see the Republican majority expressing remorse for a past American mistake. I know there will be discussion about "apologising for America" in the upcoming GOP convention, and I'm sure it will focus on this measure.
On the further history of the topic and implications for today's immigration debates, the immigration scholar Benjamin Railton writes in to say:
I also just wanted to note that the CEA wasn't just the first restriction on immigration; it was the first immigration law period (this is the first of the three things in my book, the specific histories of immigration laws and lack thereof in America).
Prior to that, every immigrant was neither legal nor illegal, as there were no laws that applied to them. And even from 1882 to 1921, every immigrant not covered by that law (so basically any non-Chinese and eventually non-Asian immigrant; nor covered by the 1875 Page Act, which restricted only prostitutes and convicted criminals) was still neither legal nor illegal, as they continued to fall under the jurisdiction of no law.
I think this information makes a big difference, since so many of our arguments about immigration include the phrase "My ancestors came here legally" (meaning that they chose to follow the law), and it's almost always entirely untrue.
* I don't know the original source of the cartoon; I saw it here.
This post was originally published at The Atlantic
21 June 2012