Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Amnesty—Past and Present

By Bill Ong Hing, Professor of Law, University of San Francisco.

The story of undocumented immigration in the Chinese American community is well known. Because of the exclusion laws, many Chinese entered the United States under false citizenship claims. A Chinese laborer might assert, for example, that he was born in San Francisco and that his birth certificate was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Then he would claim, after various trips to China, that his wife there had given birth to children (usually sons) who automatically derived U.S. citizenship. In fact, the children were often fictitious, and the few immigration slots were given or sold to others in China. They came to be known as “paper sons.” Thousands of others, including wives, sneaked across the Canadian or Mexican border.

As immigration inspectors grew to distrust Chinese Americans, the government set up enforcement tools such as Angel Island. Across the country, raids on private homes, restaurants, and other businesses were also conducted.

Because many Chinese did have something to hide and because of the intense level of deportation enforcement directed against them, many Chinese Americans lived in constant fear of immigration authorities. Even those with nothing to hide were forced to constantly look over their shoulder. A “confession program” offered by immigration authorities in the late 1950s for those Chinese desirous of clearing up their immigration histories (since names and family trees may have been confused by earlier false claims) made matters worse. The program was purportedly a trade-off for the raids during the Red Scare and was promoted in some quarters as an amnesty program. In fact, nothing in the immigration laws changed; the confession program offered only a weak assurance that if a confessed Chinese was eligible for an existing statutory remedy, the paperwork would be processed. Some might now be married to a citizen through whom immigration was possible, others who entered illegally prior to June 28, 1940, could be eligible for a relief known as “registry,” and still others could apply for suspension of deportation if extreme hardship and good moral character could be demonstrated. But many who admitted past fraud were not eligible for relief and were deported. Because they feared immigration authorities, relatively few Chinese went through the confession program. In San Francisco, only about 10,000 Chinese came forward.

Since the 1970s, one of the largest groups of undocumented immigrants is from Mexico. In 1986, President Reagan signed the bi-partisan Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that included amnesty provisions for those who had resided continuously in the United States for five years or who had been agricultural workers. About 3 million individuals received legal status through IRCA. However, the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has continued.

Today, an estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States. The partisan debate over what to do with this population usually pits immigrants and immigrant rights advocates who call for amnesty against those who call for stricter enforcement and believe that granting amnesty will encourage more undocumented migration. Recently, states like Arizona, Alabama, and Colorado have enacted their own anti-immigration laws seeking to discourage undocumented immigrants from residing in their states.

About 20 years ago when a few boats carrying smuggled Chinese from Fujian Province sailed into the San Francisco and New York harbors, the Chinese aboard were arrested and held in custody. A handful were later granted asylum, but most were deported. Interestingly, the New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal had quite a contrary view of those Chinese. He thought that they should be welcomed as heroes after fleeing China for a better life aboard the Golden Venture. In fact, he penned a column about these undocumented Chinese, “Give Them a Parade.”

I have represented countless undocumented Mexicans in my legal career going back to 1974. One thing that I have found is that they would remain home in Mexico if they could find work there that pays enough to feed their families. As a nation, the United States ought to do the right thing when it comes to undocumented immigrants. Given our long historical ties with Mexico, doing the right thing is especially in order in the case of Mexican migrants. We demonize the undocumented, rather than see them for what they are: human beings entering for a better life who have been manipulated by globalization, regional economies, and social structures that have operated for generations. The United States has benefited from their hard labor, and if we really wanted to stop undocumented migration, then it does not take a brain surgeon to realize that we should be working to help Mexico get its economy in order as well as our own.

In the meantime, providing a broad legalization program is in order, coupled with more visas for Mexican workers, so that they no longer have to risk their lives to cross the border. The “confession program” for Chinese in the 1950s was mostly a fraud perpetrated on our community, but we need not repeat that fraud for undocumented immigrants today. Let’s be honest, and treat them with the respect they deserve.

Bill Ong Hing is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and Professor of Law Emeritus, at the University of California, Davis. Professor Hing is the founder and continues to volunteer as General Counsel for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.  He is an Angel Island descendant.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Donate to AIISF at Network for Good Join our e-news list