Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What We Can Teach and Learn From the Chinese Exclusion Act

-- Contributed by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF)

Faith, Fear, Hope, Dreams. These are some of the words etched into the memorial walls at the Angel Island Immigration Station, a point of entry on the west coast which served to both include and exclude immigrants. Individuals that passed through or were detained here included Australians and New Zealanders, Canadians, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Russians, and in particular, Asians.

The month of May is Asian American Pacific Heritage month and it provides an opportunity to take a closer look into the bleak history of the remote, fog-shrouded Immigration Station to see what conditions allowed it to exist and to explore our current societal and individual thoughts on race and immigration. As we study its history, connections can be made in the classroom illustrating how personal beliefs lead to civic engagement and legislation that can affect us all for many generations.

The Immigration Station, set on a small island in the San Francisco Bay, was built in 1910 to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major piece of legislation targeting a nationality. Unlike Ellis Island where immigrants were processed within hours or days, on Angel Island, many were detained for weeks, months, and even years.

The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Only diplomats, teachers, students, merchants, and travelers were allowed to enter. This law was not repealed until 1943 when China was a U.S. ally in World War II.

How did this law come about? In the 1870s, an economic depression created serious unemployment problems. Racist labor union leaders directed their actions and the anger of unemployed workers at the Chinese, blaming them for depressed wages and lack of jobs, and accusing them of being morally corrupt. Because of these opinions, local and statewide restrictions continued to be enforced against the Chinese until the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In the classroom, we can use this history to ask the students what it means and feels like to be excluded. Were they ever left out of a group or activity? What did that feel like? And why do people sometimes exclude others? 

The Exclusion Act was a result of attitudes driven by fear and racism to exclude Chinese from mainstream American life. Some of the underlying ideas and sentiments of the Exclusion Act are similarly and reprehensibly expressed for the discrimination experienced by other groups. Lesson two from the Angel Island Immigration Journeys created by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation has a complete plan for this as well as a detailed U.S. Immigration History timeline.

America is a nation of immigrants and continues to be an immigration destination for people from all over the world seeking opportunities. Yet, immigration still captures our news headlines and is cause for much heated debate. Using the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station, we can help our students develop the critical thinking and emotional intelligence to shape how Americans think and act towards immigration now and in the future.

Additional Resources
•    HSTRY Immigration Timeline: To broaden the study of immigration history, check out HSTRY’s interactive immigration timeline for high school students which includes several primary source texts and images, quiz questions, and discussion forums for students.

•    Connect your historical study of immigration to the present moment by asking students to take an Immigration Status Privilege Walk, our newest lesson plan, where students learn the meanings of various U.S. immigration statuses in order to understand their ‘benefits’ and ‘limitations.’

•    For more lessons and resources to teach about the Chinese Exclusion Act, visit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website and The UC Berkeley Bancroft Library’s Chinese in California, 1850-1925 Digital Archive.

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