WASHINGTON – After 100 Chinese American organizations issued a letter Thursday calling for Congress to apologize for the Chinese Exclusion Act, it might not be far-fetched to think that Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke may well be one of the letter’s firm supporters.
Locke, the first Chinese American governor in the US, admitted that his family is still very nervous about how his grandfather entered the states, according to a New York Times column last year.
Locke’s grandfather first arrived in the US from Guangdong province in China. He traded house chores for English lessons in a home in Olympia, Wash.
The letter was delivered to Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman to be elected to Congress, calling for legislators on Capitol Hill to pass a resolution of apology to Chinese Americans for the act, the first major restriction on free immigration into the US.
Over 4 million Chinese Americans live in the US.
“It remains as a dark stain of racial prejudice and wanton violation of constitutional rights against a specific nationality or ethnic group in the history of this great democracy,” the petition letter stated. “The US Congress has a moral obligation to recognize and face the fundamental injustices of its past laws and policies and to provide meaningful redress for its consequences.”
Haipei Xue, president of the National Council of Chinese Americans and one of the main backers of the campaign, said no one is in a better position to pressure Congress for an apology than than Judy Chu.
A second-generation Chinese American, Chu serves as a House representative of California, which boasts the largest population of Chinese Americans.
“I would like to introduce this resolution,” she said. “We are at the point of our history that we can put something like this forward and really mobilize all the groups to work on this.”
After introducing the resolution to Congress, the congresswoman called for strong support from the Chinese communities all over the country.
“I believe that this will not be successful unless every Chinese in each of the cities meet their congressmen and get commitments from them,” she added.
The act, made into law in 1882 and repealed in 1943, barred most Chinese immigrants from entering the US. Federal law prohibited Chinese residents, no matter how long they had legally worked in the US from becoming naturalized citizens.
Those who managed to get in were often called “paper sons,” using elaborate ruses about lost documentation to enter the country.
The Geary Act, passed in 1892, required Chinese aliens to carry a residence certificate with them at all times with a penalty of deportation.
Congressman Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, chairman of the East Asian Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, showed his support for the petition letter.
“What we hope to achieve is not just an apology for Chinese and their descendents here but other Asian communities that were included in other expansions or redefinition of Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Ted Gong of the Chinese American Citizen Alliance.
He said Japanese and Filipinos were also affected by the act. “An apology will remind people today and in the future that this kind of law is destructive to the United States,” he said.
Chu said the most urgent matter now is to educate Chinese Americans about this chapter in US history.
“I can guarantee you that most people don’t know what the law is, even the Chinese,” she said.
Peter Kwong, an expert in Asian American studies and a sociology professor from the City University of New York, said that Asian Americans often regard themselves in a positive way as model minority and ignore their racially discriminated past.
“It is time for Chinese to get educated about the past. We should mobilize all the communities to make sure people know it and remember it before we rush the bill to the Congress,” he said. “Bearing in mind what has happened in Arizona (in regards to the state’s new and often criticized immigration law), the past is still relevant to us now.”