Remembering the West Coast's ugly anti-immigrant era

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This is part of a series of Crosscut stories discussing race in the Puget Sound region.

Led by Donald Trump, the GOP presidential candidates are putting immigration at the top of the list of 2016 campaign issues. Almost every day, one of them tries to top the others in cracking down.

Trump has a plan to build a Mexican border wall, end “birthright” citizenship, and deport some 11 million immigrants believed to be in the U.S. illegally. Jeb Bush worries about Asian “anchor babies.” Scott Walker says he’d consider building another wall on the Canadian border. Bobby Jindal claims that immigrants need to work hard and assimilate better lest they become invaders. Chris Christie wants to track them like FedEx packages.

As outrageous as some of these proposals are, they strongly mirror attitudes and even specific policies that were prevalent, even dominant, in the Pacific Northwest a century or more ago. Indeed, there was a time when Seattle and the West Coast were in full Trump mode and attempted, by intimidation and the law, to rid the city and region not of Latino but Chinese immigrants. Even Trump’s statement about the undocumented -- “They must go” -- perfectly echoes the slogan of the anti-Chinese activists of the 19th Century whose battle cry was, “The Chinese must go.”

In short, there’s a nativist revival that mirrors part of our own ugly past, and is raising arguments once hotly debated in the wake of the Civil War over immigration and civil and human rights.

In mid-August of 2015, the Seattle city council unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Nick Licata, Bruce Harrell, John Okamoto and Jean Godden expressing “deep regret” over anti-Chinese laws passed by the Washington Territorial legislature and the city council. It’s contains a catalog of legislative outrages: an 1853 law barring the Chinese from voting, laws discouraging Chinese immigration and levying a poll tax, a law prohibiting the Chinese in Washington from testifying against whites in court, a law prohibiting Chinese ownership of land. Such laws and court decisions supporting them were common throughout the West.

Near the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, the Seattle city council passed a number of discriminatory ordinances. In 1885, new laws cracked down on immigrant housing, restricted laundries -- mostly Chinese -- and made citizenship a requirement to get a vendor’s license, an impossibility since the Chinese were prevented from becoming citizens by the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In other words, Seattle sought to make living and working conditions here untenable for the Chinese, and extension of similar laws that came and went regarding blacks and native Americans.

Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Olympia and many other West Coast cities went even further.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, effectively stripped the Chinese of rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment by finding that the Chinese, as non-citizens, were from a federal government standpoint, not “persons” under the Constitution. Birthright citizenship did not apply to the Chinese, a decision eventually overturned when challenged by a man named Wong Kim Ark in 1898.

The Court had left it largely to the states to regulate their Chinese populations. One result was vigilante pogroms, lynchings, murders, property seizures and mass expulsions.

In 1885, Seattle hosted an Anti-Chinese Congress to develop a Washington strategy to “rid the Territory” of Chinese. Some took that quite literally. That same year a group of white and Native American workers murdered three low-wage Chinese hop pickers in what is now Issaquah in a dispute over employment. Seattle’s infamous anti-Chinese riot of 1886 saw the forcible expulsion of some 200 Chinese residents by angry white workers -- many immigrants themselves -- who complained that the Chinese were taking their jobs. The looting and burning of Chinese communities, the driving out of Chinese workers and families was widespread.

Anti-Chinese attitudes were held by members of both political parties. Many Republicans who had opposed slavery and supported African American suffrage felt comfortable opposing rights for the Chinese who were the ultimate “other,” or whose slave-like conditions in the U.S. were thought curable by sending them back to China.

The arguments proffered were economic and moral. An article in the Puget Sound Weekly Argus in 1877 expressed a common attitude: “The people of California, like Oregon and Washington, feel the evil effects of the Chinese in their midst ... Great exertions have been made to Christianize and enlighten them, but to no purpose. Their cheap labor tends to pauperize whites. Their presence is morally and physically pestilential. Cheap labor means white famine. Hordes of Chinese means moral and physical disease to the young of the country.”

Democratic newspapers often saw the Chinese in the same light as blacks: not even human. Forced already to accept African American suffrage via reconstruction, they argued against going further. As an editorial in the Walla Walla Statesman expressed it, “Our radical rulers are consistent. Having given us Negro equality, they now follow the leveling down process by placing us upon an equality with the Chinamen. The next thing, we presume, will be to declare the gorilla entitled to citizenship.”

Efforts by the federal government to track and deport the Chinese largely failed. The Chinese resisted the federal Geary Act (1892) that required all Chinese to register with the government with photo identification. Pre-Fed-Ex, it was called the “Dog Tag Law” and the Chinese almost universally refused to be tagged like dogs. The law proved too costly to enforce and Congress was loath to pay to manage the system and or for mass deportations, especially in the bad economy of the 1890s. It was also opposed by many employers of cheap labor -- railroads, mines, large farms -- because implementation would devastate the Western economy and potentially damage trade relations with China, which could retaliate against U.S. businesses and missionaries for mistreatment of Chinese citizens.

We’ve come a long way when it comes to the Chinese. It is virtually impossible to imagine the West Coast and its major cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, without Chinese influence. The old Chinatowns are regarded as cultural treasures; Washington has had a Chinese-American governor in Gary Locke; Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond thrive with Asian immigrants making their mark in the tech industry.

The nativist narrative of the current GOP campaign plays to anxieties, rage, racism and prejudice against immigrants, particularly those of color. Birthright citizenship and the 14th Amendment, jobs, mass deportations, resisting cultural debasement (Trump’s rapists and murders), blaming immigrants for criminal activity, all are familiar complaints and the solutions proposed had been tried and rejected before Trump was a gleam in his father’s eye, let alone married his immigrant wives. That nativist narrative generally neglects the long-term benefits of groups, like the Chinese, that were singled out and driven out, yet persevered to become an unquestioned part of our regional and national culture and economy.

Seattle was right to apologize for its part in 19th- and 20th-century Trumpism; we’d do well to help others learn from our mistakes.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.