We Always Have a Choice: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Muslim Travel Ban

Editors note: this piece was originally written and intended to be published in April of 2019. 

By: Christopher An

The over simplified mantra of “We have no choice. We have no choice. We have no choice.” were spoken in response to a rally in which then republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump announced the need for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering in the United States. [1]The reasons for this broad ban of Muslims entering the United States was cited as an attempt to curb “hatred” and protect against “horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad” with “no sense of reason or respect for human life.”[2]

What started as a campaign promise to ban Muslim entry into the United States eventually morphed into a suspension provision against Muslim-majority countries Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen (with North Korea and Venezuela tagged on as well). The presidential order took affect in December 2018 and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.[3]

The arguments for both side of this ban (for and against) relied on moral, legal, and idealistic stances but one pillar in this house divided that continues to stand strong despite its contention is precedent policy of the U.S. against specific racial groups. This is not the first time the U.S. has banned entry of an entire nationality out right or refused for people of a certain nationality a right to citizenship.

On May 6th, 1882 the U.S. enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively banning Chinese immigrants from entering the country or applying for citizenship if they already resided in the nation.[4]Chinese immigrants first arrived to the U.S. as low income workers during the California Gold Rush providing labor, man-power, and a work force willing to take on jobs otherwise refused by existing U.S. citizens.[5]The phrase “man-power” is used here because of the earlier 1975 Page Act that banned Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S. under the premise of protecting against an influx of Chinese prostitutes.[6]While phrased as a measure of defense against a potential threat to the country (similar to how the ban on Muslim immigrants is depicted) the Act had the effect preventing family reunification.[7]Most early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were male and while many were married, most could not afford to bring over their whole families thus leaving their wives in China. After these pioneering migrants settled they would have most likely sent for their families, but the Page Law made this a barrier sinceall women were given the same rigorous screen process under the guise of “selective” U.S. immigration policy preventing “lewd and immoral purposes” namely, prostitution.[8]Stopping families from reuniting stops the growth of an immigrant population.

This outward legislation against specific racial groups and nationalities has continued to rear its head throughout U.S. history. Examples including the outward petition against Italian and Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century with the enforcement of a literacy test.[9]Or the Immigration Act of 1924 that instated the use of established quotas based on nationality.[10]The idea of building walls is not a novel idea for the U.S., nor is instating a blanketed ban against a set of people simply because of their origins.

However, despite these dark periods in history there are still moments of progression in U.S. immigration policy. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the earlier mention quota system.[11]The U.S. is still constantly taking in immigrants with numbers reaching over 700,000 people naturalized in the 2016 fiscal year.[12]The travel ban did not focus on a single nationality but instead an entire religion, but the two instances are not so different. This is not an exhaustive analysis and comparison of the two moments in which U.S. history banned a specified group, but rather a demonstration that this is not the first-time policy has attempted to use the guise of protectionism against a group wishing to become part of the U.S. fabric. Despite what current and historical political rhetoric may state, we as a nation always have a choice.

[1]Jenna Johnson & David Weigel, Donald Trump Calls for ‘Total’ Ban on Muslims Entering United States, Wash. Post, Dec. 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2015/12/07/e56266f6-9d2b-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html?utm_term=.6c94f12b9604.

[2]Jenna Johnson & David Weigel, Donald Trump Calls for ‘Total’ Ban on Muslims Entering United States, Wash. Post, Dec. 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2015/12/07/e56266f6-9d2b-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html?utm_term=.6c94f12b9604

[3]Rick Gladstone & Satoshi Sugiyama, Trump’s Travel Ban: How it Works and Who is Affected, N.Y. Times, Jul. 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/01/world/americas/travel-ban-trump-how-it-works.html.

[4]Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border1 2002.

[5]Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border6 2002.

[6]Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border6 2002.

[7]Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border7 2002.

[8]Eithne Luibheid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border6 2002.

[9]Kelly Jean Kelly, U.S. has Long History of Restricting Immigrants, VOA News, Jan. 31, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/united-states-history-of-immigration-restrictions/3700234.html.

[10]Kelly Jean Kelly, U.S. has Long History of Restricting Immigrants, VOA News, Jan. 31, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/united-states-history-of-immigration-restrictions/3700234.html.

[11]Kelly Jean Kelly, U.S. has Long History of Restricting Immigrants, VOA News, Jan. 31, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/united-states-history-of-immigration-restrictions/3700234.html.

[12]U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Naturalization Fact Sheet,   https://www.uscis.gov/news/fact-sheets/naturalization-fact-sheet.

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