Old School Alpha Asians

This past mid-term election here in the States brings to mind the saying about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The issue of the role and size of government is being replayed again, with Newt Gingrich and the young turk Republicans having this argument with Bill Clinton back in the early '90's. Or FDR having to do battle with the Republicans over social security and managing the country during the Great Depression.

Seems familiar, doesn't it? Like we're reliving and rehashing these arguments again? It's because we are.

The tea baggers and other extreme conservative groups have wanted to make changes to the 14th amendment of the US Constitution in regards to the illegal immigration problem the US has. Moreover, these extremist groups want to go so far as to deny citizenship to the children born here of illegal immigrants and subvert the 14th Amendment to satisfy their anger and fear against Latinos. Some of these groups have claimed that Mexican women are purposefully pregnant before illegally crossing into the States just so they can quick shot their way to citizenship.

Unfortunately, in uncertain times people who feel a loss of control want to lash out against someone, to find a root cause for their economic hardships. Politicians love to posture and demagogue to them in scoring short term coups. Rather than finding civil solutions, they love to stoke the flames of xenophobia, veiled racism, which can lead people to harbor an unfair resentment and hatred for those targeted.

Sound familiar? Anyone remember the Chinese Exclusion Act? Looks like these battles ain't over.

The Legacy of Wong Kim Ark

So, birthplace doesn't guarantee citizenship in the extremists' view. One of the biggest past battles over citizenship went to the Supreme Court. It involved an old school Alpha Asian, and all others who helped him, by the name of Wong Kim Ark and the decision had far reaching beneficial effects for all children of immigrants who were born here in the States. The impact is enormous. Yet, there are calls for its repeal, that the US. vs. Wong Kim Ark decision was and is wrong.

Wong Kim Ark challenged a racist system that wanted to choose to whom constitutional rights applied. Wong was born in San Francisco, CA , sometime in the mid 1860's. His parents were Chinese immigrants and not US citizens. At some point in 1890, his parents traveled back to China to live and later on, Wong traveled to visit China and upon his return trip to California was granted access and entry, because it was assumed he was a native-born citizen of the US.

However, in 1895, when Wong traveled back to China and returned, he was detained at the port of entry in San Francisco by Customs who deemed that while he was born in the US, he was not a citizen according to California state law and since his parents were Chinese, they were subjects of the Chinese emperor, and therefore so was Wong.

This was a consequence of the Chinese Exclusion Act which was passed in 1882 by the US Congress. It prohibited Chinese from entering the country and/or becoming naturalized citizens. Any Chinese already residing in the US could not be naturalized. If they left the US, they would not be granted re-entry. However, the Fourteenth Amendment, Section One states:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subjected to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside."

Thus began Wong's challenge. Prof. Frank Wu, Dean of Wayne State Law School in Michigan wrote in an essay:

"...it was during the period of Chinese Exclusion that birthright citizenship emerged as a constitutional doctrine. In frontier towns such as San Francisco, Chinese laborers represented more than a quarter of the population. With an economic downturn, whites---many of whom themselves were recent arrivals to the United States---saw non-whites as competitors in racial terms. Politicians began to agitate against them, shouting the rallying cry, 'The Chinese must go!' Even progressive leaders such as Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, argued that it was 'meat or rice', suggesting that Caucasians could not succeed against Asians and had no choice but to limit their entry....

"After Exclusion, contrary to images of a submissive subculture isolated from teh mainstream, Chinese communities engaged in civil disobediance in the best traditions of American liberty....Chinese communities also organized themselves to protest their exclusion through politics and lawsuits. The Wong case was only one example."

Prof. Jean Pfaelzer wrote a book, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, documenting horrific stories of Chinese being violently uprooted from their homes and lives, victims of mob violence, and worse, killed. She also documents Wing Hing v. City of Eureka, where the Chinese sought equal protection from the justice system. They argued that the city had a duty to protect its residents and demanded reparations for the violent exile enforced upon them.

They lost. Yet, many others did not give up the good fight. Pfaelzer documents that Chinese immigrants filed some 7,000 lawsuits in the aftermath of the Exclusion Act and a good many of them won. The issue regarding Wong before the Court was stated as thus:

"The question presented by the record is whether a child born in the United States, of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicile and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, becomes at the time of his birth a citizen of the United States by virtue of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution..."

The high Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Wong, upholding the first clause. They reasoned that because Wong was US born, the Chinese Exclusion Act didn't apply to him and any act of Congress to be applied to him does not over ride the Constitution. Prof. Frank Wu writes:

"....the Supreme Court united racial minority groups. For the 14th Amendment had been passed to overturn the notorious Supreme Court decisions in the Dred Scott case, which declared that blacks were not citizens. Thus, because African Americans were citizens, Asian immigrants could be citizens as well, and vice versa."

In a NY Times book review of Prof. Pfaelzer's book, the reviewer noted that in 1876, the Reno Evening Gazette in Nevada took note of the violence against the Chinese in nearby Truckee, California in which vigilantes set two cabins on fire and discharged firearms at the fleeing occupants, commenting that it represented a "phase of human depravity and cupidity that would cast a gloom over the dark shades of hell."
But to counter that dismal and bleak outlook for humanity, Wong Kim Ark was represented by Thomas Riordan, a lawyer for the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Prof. Pfaelzer also documents the work of Frederick Bee, another legal counsel to the Chinese Consulate, who filed many lawsuits for the dispossessed Chinese; there are acts of bravery by white Westerners who came to the rescue of some Chinese who were threatened with mob and vigilante violence.
I hope that there are many more in today's majority, like the aforementioned, who will aid those who are treated unjustly simply because of race, to oppose those who are swayed by hatred and feel the need to scapegoat, to give into their worst base impulses, rationalized by false prophets who demagogue.

People like Riordan and Bee and others were the ones who realize that we are all in this together, it just can't be "us versus them", that this is a nation of immigrants. We need to fight the good fight or else what happened to our ancestors will happen to some other group, or it will happen to us. Again. We need to amplify the voices of reason in these unsettled times.

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