Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Secretary of Labor James Davis conceded in 1927 that even if the U.S. government placed the Army on the Canadian and Mexican borders, “we couldn’t stop them; if we had the Navy on the water-front we couldn’t stop them. Not even a Chinese wall, nine thousand miles in length and built over rivers and deserts and mountains and along the seashores, would seem to permit a permanent solution.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh? Ninety years ago, people in the United States were worried about illegal immigrants and suggesting things like giant walls to keep them out (and already being told how that wouldn’t work). However, the thing that’s changed is that the immigrants in question at that time were Asian, and that almost never gets mentioned in U.S. history classes. Indeed, in all the ones I’ve ever taken, the only Asian people in America to ever be mentioned were Chinese immigrant workers on the Transcontinental Railroad, and that was only a brief couple of sentences.

The source of the above quotation, Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History begins to remedy that omission. It’s mostly focused on people of Asian ancestry in the United States, but there is also some coverage of Asian immigrants to Canada and Latin America (indeed, Asians came to Latin America almost as soon as Europeans did). It also covers a wide variety of Asians: people who came from China, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and their American descendants. (It did occur to me that large portions of the continent of Asia aren’t mentioned — I suppose the Asian part of Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian countries may not have been the source of much immigration to the Americas, but that’s a little harder to believe of areas as populous as Indonesia and Malaysia. And then there’s the Middle East, which is mostly on the same landmass but somehow not thought of as “Asian” in the U.S. — that would make a longer book on its own.)

Anyway, Lee covers the history of Asians coming to America and how badly they were often treated by those of European ancestry; it’s quite interesting to someone like me, who grew up when (East) Asians were called the “model minority,” to see how people opposed their presence a century earlier, and how it was assumed people of Asian descent couldn’t possibly assimilate into the mainstream cultures of countries of the Americas. And even if you know of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, it’s most likely a complete surprise to hear that Latin American countries sent their residents and citizens of Japanese ancestry to the United States to go into the same kind of camps. These are the kind of things that shouldn’t be forgotten, on their own account and because the knowledge can really affect how people look at current events, particularly immigration to the U.S. from anywhere, and relations with between different countries.