NOTE: Originally published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on January 15, 2011.
This article has been re-posted with the permission of the author.
By Assemblyman Mike Eng
For many Asian Americans, and especially Chinese Americans, the current debate about birthright citizenship is a debate our community already knows. That is because the vast majority of Asian Americans would not be U.S. citizens today save for the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1898 decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, which affirmed that the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment applied even to U.S.-born children of Chinese and other foreign nationals who were legally barred from naturalizing.
Thus, as a legislator, an immigration attorney and a descendant of Chinese immigrants, I am saddened and alarmed by the vitriol surrounding the birthright citizenship debate and the current push to strip away citizenship from the children of undocumented parents.
From the beginning, the history of Chinese Americans in the U.S. has been intricately tied to the debate around the right to citizenship.
Like so many immigrants, Chinese Americans, including my family, came to the United States to pursue the American Dream and to build a life for themselves and their families. Yet when Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States at the end of the 19th century, many were detained, incarcerated and repeatedly interrogated, sometimes for years.
What was the reason? The xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only law in U.S. history that explicitly prohibited entry into America on the basis of race and nationality, prevented them from stepping foot into the country. The Act was part of a widespread campaign to drive out predominantly low-wage Chinese immigrant workers, who were accused of driving down wages for “real Americans” and for failing to assimilate.
Consequently, Chinese immigrants ostensibly became the first undocumented immigrant population in the United States. After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was just one method by which most could gain entry to the U.S.: by becoming “paper sons” – erasing their real names, family ties and ancestral connections, and adopting false identities claiming to be the overseas offspring of Chinese who were already in the United States.
The current birthright citizenship debate resurrects the malicious spirit of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It is unfortunate that in today’s ugly debate around immigration, an immigrant child is not seen as a symbol of hope, but as an “anchor baby,” demonized as a way for parents to gain legal status in the United States. The legal reality is that these parents still face deportation, even if they have U.S.-born citizen children. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has deported more than 100,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens.
Instead we should celebrate the right to citizenship, as granted by the 14th Amendment, a quintessential cornerstone of American civil rights in itself. Obtaining citizenship is the important last step to being fully integrated in American society, where being a citizen gives one the right to vote, the permanent right to work in the U.S., and the right to travel freely abroad. It encourages civic participation and activism, and is a way for immigrants to show that they are proud to be an American. That is why every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants gather at oath ceremonies throughout the country to pledge allegiance to the United States and to become U.S. citizens.
Immigration has also helped to drive the growth and prosperity of our nation. Throughout California, businesses owned by Latinos and Asians comprise more than one-quarter of all businesses in the state. And in Los Angeles alone, immigrants account for 34 percent of the area’s total economic output.
Instead of directing our energies toward stripping citizenship from children, we need to focus on achieving comprehensive immigration reform. Our broken immigration system has contributed to the undocumented population, because getting a visa to enter the United States takes up to 20 years.
Many of the estimated one million undocumented immigrants in the Asian American community include those whose family members have died while awaiting reunification through the overburdened family system. Would you wait 20 years to reunite with your loved ones?
The denial of citizenship runs counter to our values and what America is all about – a free and democratic society that welcomes its victims, treats people as individuals and respects their civil and human rights, and does not discriminate based on race, culture or country of origin. Instead, let us focus our energies together on achieving real and humane immigration reform.
Assemblyman Mike Eng represents the 49th District, which includes the cities of Alhambra, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel, San Marino, and South El Monte. Eng is the author of Assembly Concurrent Resolution 76, which designates December 17 as the “Day of Inclusion” in California and memorializes the historic Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and was signed into law on December 17, 1943.