Lawmakers want apology for anti-Chinese measures
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 6, 2009 – 10:16 am
It’s not a pretty history.
But, two California legislators say, it’s time to admit it and apologize for how Chinese immigrants were treated during and after the Gold Rush.
Assemblymen Paul Fong and Kevin de Leon are sponsoring a resolution that recognizes Chinese laborers for mining ore, building levees to create farmland and constructing — at great peril and for less pay than whites — 80 percent of the western half of the transcontinental railroad.
While the Chinese toiled, the assemblymen say, California‘s 19th-century politicians passed law after law segregating the Chinese and, when their labor was no longer in high demand, tried to drive them out.
Assembly Concurrent Resolution 42 calls for an apology for forcing the Chinese to pay higher taxes on gold than whites; barring them from holding certain jobs, owning property or testifying in trials; and segregating them and forbidding them from marrying whites or bringing family from China.
“It’s a shameful chapter in California legislative history,” said Fong, D-Cupertino, who is of Chinese descent.
“We should recognize this as part of our history,” he said, “say our regrets and move on.”
Fong’s great-grandfather worked in California, but when Fong’s grandfather wanted to immigrate to the state in 1939, the only way he could do it was with fake papers identifying him as the Chinese-born son of a family in California that pre-dated the Exclusion Act, Fong said.
“That was the system for getting in at that time,” he said.
Fong’s grandfather farmed near San Francisco but had to rent land. State laws on the books until 1952 barred him from owning property.
De Leon, D-Los Angeles, the son of Mexican immigrants, approached Fong about a legislative resolution to make amends for this history.
De Leon’s district contains the city’s Chinatown and one of the nation’s most diverse immigrant populations.
“The Chinese deserve an acknowledgment, even if it’s a century late,” de Leon said.
Californians, he said, have a long history of benefiting from foreigners’ labor and lashing out at them during tough economic times.
“The Central Pacific Railroad went across the Pacific to recruit the Chinese. And then as soon as a project was done, the state legislators initiated ways to chase them out,” de Leon said. “I don’t think a lot of people today know that.”
In 1879, California‘s Legislature targeted the Chinese by voting to “impose conditions” to remove foreigners and protect the state from “the burdens and evils arising from the presence of aliens, who are, or may become vagrants, paupers, mendicants, criminals, or invalids afflicted with contagious or infectious diseases.”
The law was passed just 10 years after thousands of Chinese recruits hand-drilled through the Sierra Nevada to help finish the transcontinental railroad.
To prepare their resolution, Fong and de Leon consulted Bill Hing, a UC Davis immigration law and history professor.
“What happened to the Chinese,” Hing said, “is what’s happening today — let’s face it — to the Mexicans.”
Just as they have since, Hing said, California politicians then called for voter referendums on immigrants. In 1879, Californians voted overwhelmingly against Chinese immigration.
In the 19th century, racism was naked and led to laws targeting immigrants by race, Hing said.
Today, he said, many people say they resent illegal immigrants because they don’t wait their turn and enter legally.
What many people don’t realize is that there is no line for many foreigners to join, Hing said, adding that the immigration system has encouraged unlawful entry because visas don’t exist anymore for most of the jobs immigrants fill in the United States.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee passed the Chinese resolution on June 23, with no opposition.
“I’m not denying that what happened, happened,” Knight said. “But our job as legislators is to move the state forward.”
He said he’s worried other wronged groups will ask for more apologies.
In fact, in 2005, the Legislature passed an act apologizing for California‘s part in rounding up and deporting about 400,000 residents of Mexican descent, many U.S.-born, during the Great Depression. Nationwide, about 2 million people of Mexican descent were forced to go to Mexico.
They’ve received some criticism, mostly anonymous Web site postings, for pursuing a symbolic act while the state is mired in a budget crisis.
But some messages were racist, Fong said, including one that said: “Go home, gook.”