Chinese Exclusion Act in the Age of COVID-19

By: Calla Li (PO ’22)

May 6, 2020; marks the 138-year-anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only piece of immigration legislation in American history to exclude an ethnic group by name. At the time, economic anxiety ran high due to the increasingly fierce competition to find gold in Northern California, causing rising animosity against Chinese laborers for taking White American jobs. While economic concerns served as the main justification for the law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, like many other exclusionary immigration policies, reflected a fear and rejection of the cultural “other”. This underlying fear continues to impact American immigration policies today, especially as the Chinese American community faces scrutiny during the COVID-19 epidemic. 

In the 138 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act, American immigration policy has largely reversed, on paper, the intended effect of the act. Specifically, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA), which eliminated exclusionary national quotas, allowed many Asian and Latin American immigrants to come to the US, resulting in a 208% growth in the US Asian population between 1965 and 2017. Under a provision of the INA that prioritized high-skilled workers and students, China and Taiwan’s intellectual elite immigrated to the US. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, another wave of predominantly mainland Chinese immigrants arrived in the US, and many received permanent resident status under the Chinese Student Protect Act of 1992. Today, the Chinese community (both foreign and domestic born) represents the largest Asian American subgroup, residing in suburban ethnic enclaves, such as Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, and urban centers, like New York City’s Chinatown, and everywhere in between

Despite this major demographic shift, discriminatory attitudes still persisted. While inclusive immigration legislation was passed, this failed to change fundamentally xenophobic attitudes. For decades, Chinese-Americans (and the Asian-American community as a whole) was shielded from direct, institutional discrimination by the ‘Model Minority Myth’, an outwardly “positive” stereotype that portrays the Asian community as submissive, hardworking, and successful, while actually pitting Asian Americans against other minorities. However, the COVID-19 epidemic, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, threatens the resurgence of explicitly racist and xenophobic attacks, both verbal and physical, against Asian Americans at a level unseen since anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII. 

What’s particularly disturbing are the parallels in the use of inflammatory rhetoric to empower xenophobic attacks in the leadup to the Chinese Exclusion Act and during the COVID-19 epidemic. Often, racist rhetoric first manifests in attacks on Chinese culture and lifestyle. In 1878, Dennis Kearney, a California labor leader, made disparaging remarks against Chinese laborers in a campaign speech, stating thattheir dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They are abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things.” Political cartoons from the time exemplified this by portraying Chinese laborers as vermin or uncivilized barbarians. Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese eating habits came under heavy attack, most notably with Texas Senator John Cornyn remarking that “China is to blame, because of the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” Similarly, a wide variety of racist drawings and t-shirt designs mocking Chinese culture circulated on social media. 

 Xenophobic comments from politicians and authority figures occurred in tandem with verbal and physical harassment against the Chinese community. In the decade leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act, violence against Chinese laborers was widespread and condoned. In 1871, a white mob looted Los Angeles’ Chinatown, burning down buildings and lynching 20 Chinese laborers. Similarly, in the past two-months, Asian-owned businesses across the US have suffered from vandalization and looting. Even more concerning is the overall trend of an uptick in hate crimes against Asian American individuals, ranging from insults on the subway to stabbings inside grocery stores. 

Inherently racist rhetoric, like President Trump’s repeated use of the term “Chinese virus,” is more than just words. The historical parallels from the Chinese Exclusion Act have demonstrated that inflammatory rhetoric breeds xenophobic attitudes, which are in turn harnessed as momentum for pushing through discriminatory legislation. In fact, President Trump has already used the virus as a justification for temporarily suspending immigration and restricting travel from China, though some experts predict that some of these restrictions will last for much longer.

 Furthermore, on April 26, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, suggested that Chinese students should not be allowed to study STEM subjects in the United States, for fear that they will return home “to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately to steal our property.” Just one week later, President Trump announced plans to reduce the OPT (Optional Practical Training) extension program for international students, many of whom are from China. Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security Secretary, confirmed in an interview on restricting OPT that “[the homeland security department] is certainly very concerned about the number of visa programs that Chinese students can use to come into the country and study and stay, and eventually work.” While there have been a number of instances of Chinese students leaking sensitive information from US labs, restricting OPT does not actually resolve this problem. Rather, this feeds into a narrative that generalizes Chinese students as national security threats and jeopardizes the careers of talented students, who are able to contribute economically, academically, and culturally to US universities and workplaces. 

As Kirsten Ostherr, a health technology research at Rice University, observed “the desire to visualize the invisible during times of contagion is powerful and enduring.” This is because inflammatory rhetoric can be rooted to the need to find a scapegoat for society’s troubles. Due to the intangibility of the virus, there is a need to pin a face on it, so that it becomes more comprehensible. Of course, humanizing a virus comes at the cost of dehumanizing certain groups, which throughout the course of history, has tended to be marginalized communities. This dehumanizing rhetoric and “us vs them” mindset must be stopped before it can morph into instituionalized discrimination, such as through exclusionary immigration policies. 

While it is unlikely that there will be a reprieve of the Chinese Exclusion Act, this pandemic certainly jeopardizes the future of American immigration policy. If Americans are not careful, the xenophobic atmosphere of distrust fostered by the Trump administration’s inflammatory political rhetoric could lead to the upheaval of decades of immigration reform and tear apart the very fabric of America’s diversity. As seen by President Trump’s immigration policy changes in light of coronavirus, inflammatory rhetoric can lead to concrete policies and instituionalized discrimination.  Nonetheless, it is still not too late to reverse some of the damage inflicted by actively countering uninformed opinions and staying civically engaged. 

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants myself, I find that I am simultaneously incredibly faithful in the strength of American institutions, because they provided my parents and I the opportunity to thrive in the US, but also my experience as a woman of color and my exploration of social justice issues makes me quite critical of the inequities perpetuated by these same institutions. With all the organizing and activism I see in the Claremont community, I’m hopeful that this next generation of educated young people, many of whom are also the children of immigrants, will rise up to the occasion and hold the government accountable for its past negligence. Ultimately, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a reminder that although xenophobic attitudes often lie dormant until a crisis hits, that does not mean they should be treated any less seriously, even in non-crisis times, as a small generalization could have a ripple effect and turn into something much more insidious.

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