Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Immigration Past and Present: A Conversation with Bill Ong Hing

By Greg Marutani, Program Committee, AIISF
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Bill Ong Hing, Professor of Law and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis. With the re-opening of Angel Island taking place in 2009, I asked him for his views and thoughts about the significance of Angel Island.
When I asked him why the Chinese wanted to come to the U.S. he said it was in response to war in Asia, rice famines, and the overall poor conditions and they heard about the opportunities for a better way of life in the United States.
With the discovery of gold, the Chinese were among those who cam to California to seek their fortune. They were also being recruited to be laborers to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Because they were dependable workers, they were also recruited to work in areas like the Napa Valley.
While there were employers who accepted Chinese immigrants, there were those who did not like them because they did not speak English, although most other immigrant groups did not, and they did not understand the customs or culture of the Chinese. When the economy took a downturn, there were those who accused the Chinese of underbidding others for work adding to the hatred and racist attitudes toward the Chinese.
Local and State efforts to discourage the Chinese businesses, segregation of Chinese students in public schools, barring Chinese from testifying in court, but did nothing to stop the flow of Chinese immigrants.
With California leading the way, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that barred laborer but allowed students to enter added, "It took a war to recognize our errors" the U.S. Professor Hing pointed out that this law was not repealed until 1943 when the U.S. realized that the Japanese was using it as propaganda in China against the U.S. at a time when China was an ally in World War II. Hing added, "It took a war to recognize our errors"
Professor Hing said that today many lawful immigrants have technically fallen into the "illegal" category as there have been lengthy delays in the processing of their papers because of the system's inefficiency, delays in fingerprint checks. Other immigrants who have initiated the process to reunify their family but due to numeric limitations backlogs for siblings have wait periods for up to 20 years.
The Professor added that whenever there has been an economic downturn, anti-immigrant sentiments rises, and those who even "look like" immigrants become targets. Professor Hing closed our conversation by saying "we are a nation of immigrants" and that "when we experience Angel Island we should be sure to look at what is happening today too. We should see that history is repeating itself." "Whenever we hear anti-immigrant statements, we need to look behind the statement and wonder if those sorts of statements were made back in the past about Asian immigrants, especially the Chinese we should catch ourselves and should make sure we don't buy into it.
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