A Nation in Denial of its Immigrant Heritage

My father’s uncle brought him here from China as his son a little after the turn of the 20th century.  At that time the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect.  Since then at the age of 9 my father never lived in a family setting but shuffled from one job to another in this alien country.  My father’s story represents many similar stories of earlier Asian immigrants coming to the US.

Historically most non-European immigrants were at best tolerated and allowed here to do jobs that no one else wanted for unacceptably low wages.  But since slavery was abolished these immigrants provided a good source of very cheap and often expendable labor allowing for cheap goods and services.  The Statue of Liberty displays a welcoming plaque to European immigrants “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free...” Yet no such statue or welcoming message exists on the West Coast to welcome Asian immigrants entering this country.  Immigrants of color have not been historically very welcomed here other than for utilitarian purposes.

When looking back at Chinese historically in this country history paints Asians as hard-working farmers, laborers and a source of expendable labor in building the Transcontinental Railroad through the Sierra-Nevada Mountains in California.  They set dangerous explosive charges and excavate tunnels through mountains in unbelievably harsh working conditions and weather, such hazardous jobs that no one else wanted to do it.  The Chinese Exclusion Act which existed in various forms up until 1943 restricted Chinese male immigration and prohibited female immigration.  Laws prohibited Chinese men from marring white women in many states.  Citizenship was prohibited.  Discrimination against Asians on the Continental US was the social order of things.  It was only after WWII that Chinese immigrants started to enjoy the full rights of their white counterparts.

Had Chinese been totally excluded from coming to this country how much more would it have cost to build the Transcontinental Railroad and how much longer would it have taken?  Would work have stopped because it was just too dangerous and costly in both lives and money?  Where would this country acquired the skills and hard labor they provided?

Asians were not the only ethnic minorities to suffer racial discrimination here.  Prior to Civil Rights parts of this country were very racist.  As a child and later as an adult I encountered such racism.  Today I still feel it exist but far more subtly.  Asians are still breaking glass ceilings in local governments and other organizations.

In the last 50 years Asian immigrants have come to this country highly educated.  The math and science skills they bring far exceed that taught here.  The majority go to colleges and universities to become high-tech engineers and scientists in electronics, computer science, aerospace, chemistry, physics, biology, and medical professions.  Graduate schools often have far more foreign students and Asians than domestic white students studying for advanced degrees.  They are very hard-working and driven to become successful because they have come from countries with limited opportunities for their technical talents or from backgrounds where education is highly valued.  Their countless technical contributions to our modern world largely go unacknowledged because their cultures practices modesty.  Yet without these immigrants where would America’s technological advances in science and technology stand today?

America is a melting pot of many ethnic and cultural groups, yet it has not always fairly treated these groups as equals or made them feel welcomed.  Even today arguments rage about what to do with illegal immigrants who have lived here most of their lives.  The conservative white majority is often in fear that ethnic minorities will take jobs away from them.  There are those who would like to cleanse this country of ethnic minorities by deportation.  But in reality most have taken jobs that Americans are unwilling, unable or unqualified to do.

Immigrants have played a major role in making this country great yet receive little credit for their contributions and much criticism for their presence in parts of this country.  But it is possibly because of their great struggles to fight discrimination, immigration, and other legal and social roadblocks that has made them more determined to work harder to prove themselves and thus become successful and live better lives than many Americans who use them as scapegoats for taking jobs.

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