Immigrants and Refugees

Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_24_ChineseExclusionActRepeal_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1943 Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to buttress America’s wartime alliance with China. But long-standing quotas still kept Asian immigration at a minimum for another two decades.
For much of the 1930s, Americans had taken on an increasingly positive view of China. Henry Luce’s Time and Life magazines published full-page charts to “educate” Americans on how to distinguish Chinese friends from “Jap” enemies. And in 1942, a Gallup poll listed the Chinese as “hardworking, honest, brave, religious, intelligent, and practical” and the Japanese as “treacherous, sly, cruel, and warlike.”55 The gradual shift away from the 19th century’s virulent anti-Chinese policies quickened after Pearl Harbor, as lawmakers redirected their efforts toward Japan. “All at once we discovered the saintly qualities of the Chinese people,” said Missouri Representative William Elmer in 1943. “If it had not been for December 7th, I do not know if we would have ever found out how good they were.”56

The armed forces and defense industries began hiring Chinese Americans, and young Chinese men eagerly volunteered or participated in the military draft. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese Americans in professional and technical jobs increased threefold between 1940 and 1950, with a concentration on engineers and technicians. Chinese-American women, like many women in the United States during the war, also experienced booming rates of employment.57

In 1943 nine bills were introduced in Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was first passed in 1882. FDR urged legislators to overturn the ban to further the war effort. The repeal law erased all six versions of the exclusionary acts and brought Chinese immigration under the quota system in a largely symbolic gesture (China’s annual quota was only about 100 people). Importantly, it also opened up the naturalization process to Chinese Americans who were not native-born.58

Legislation that granted asylum to war refugees and that also incrementally overturned long-standing immigration policies had a profound impact on APAs. Until the 1990s, only a handful of Asian and Pacific Americans served in Congress, far too few to drive the country’s legislative agenda, which more often responded to the exigencies of the Cold War and America’s decades-long rivalry with the Soviet Union. But changes culminating in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had far-reaching consequences for a variety of Asian communities in America as well as the diversity of Asian-American representation in Congress.

Starting in the 1940s, the Cold War began influencing immigration legislation in ways large and small. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948, for instance, started as an effort to assist European war refugees and quickly turned into a way to help Chinese immigrants who became stuck in America after China’s communist revolution in 1949. With President Harry S. Truman’s State Department taking the lead, federal officials stretched the application of the law and allowed Chinese immigrants to remain in the country rather than face persecution if they were required to return home.59

As the anxieties of the Cold War began dictating foreign policy, U.S. politicians saw an opportunity to combat communism abroad by passing more welcoming immigration policies at home. The sterling war record of nisei soldiers had helped erase fears about their loyalty and that of their parents. And during the 81st Congress (1949–1951), Minnesota Representative Walter Judd introduced a bill incorporating Asian immigrants into the national origins quota system and opening naturalized citizenship opportunities to all permanent Asian residents in the United States.60 Judd’s measure would also have created something called the Asia-Pacific Triangle, an area of the globe from which immigration to the United States would, with few exceptions, be limited to 100 annual visas per country. It also prohibited Asian immigrants from entering the United States via other Western Hemisphere nations.61

A version of Judd’s bill eventually passed both the House and Senate, but the conference committee added a clause aimed at likely communist sympathizers and those who belonged to or would later join subversive organizations. Because of that change, President Truman vetoed the bill and called the new section “vague and ill-defined.”62

Dismayed by the triumph of the communist regime in China, Congress acted in the early 1950s to do more than simply slip Asian refugees into legislative solutions intended for Europeans. In 1953 Congress for the first time passed legislation that included a section explicitly providing for Asian expatriates. The Refugee Relief Act was an umbrella bill that circumvented the national origins quota system and provided entry for more than 200,000 refugees who had been displaced by communist insurgencies around the world. Representative Judd, who had served as a medical missionary in China, took the lead in adding visa provisions for Chinese refugees and for people of Asian descent. Subsequent amendments increased the number of Chinese visas and expanded the program to Africa and the Middle East.63

At the height of America’s communist paranoia in the 1950s, legislative efforts to thwart suspected communist sleeper cells cast unsettling domestic shadows for Asian Americans, especially as Congress considered the Internal Security Act of 1950. Led by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and sparked in large part by America’s war with communists in North Korea, Congress severely circumscribed the movement of suspected communists living in the United States. In a flashback to 1941, Congress built part of the 1950 Internal Security Act on the framework of Japanese-American internment, which empowered the federal government to detain communists in emergency situations.64

Later in the decade, Chinese immigrants again were caught up in Cold War concerns. Throughout much of the 1950s, the FBI considered Chinese immigrants a major security threat primarily because it feared they were using forged immigration documents purchased on the black market in Communist China. In an effort to identify communist agents among Chinese immigrants, the INS initiated a confession program in which any Chinese immigrant entering the United States with fraudulent papers could still apply for a visa so long as they were related to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. In return, the immigrant would have to identify everyone who had helped him or her enter the country illegally. Unsurprisingly, the program produced few confessions.65

The procedure, however, showed enough promise that the Immigration Act Amendments of 1957 codified the confession program into law. When he signed the legislation, President Eisenhower, who had urged Congress to show leniency to immigrants who had lied in order to escape the Iron Curtain, admitted ruefully that the bill could have been much better.66 The confession program largely escaped controversy during its rapid passage, but few Chinese Americans ever participated.67

Hiram L. Fong/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_25_HiramFong_SHO.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office Hiram L. Fong was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1959 following the admission of Hawaii as a state.
Over the next decade, the refugee crisis continued unabated and, by 1960, had become one of the United Nations’ signature issues. Congress, for the most part, kept its attention on the situation in Europe. During debate over the Fair Share refugee bill, for instance, Hawaii Senator Hiram L. Fong introduced an amendment that added visas for 4,500 Chinese refugees, which, he said, would hopefully overturn the common misconception that Asians were “not as good as the people of Europe.” Although the Senate added the amendment, the House deleted it from the final version.68

Direct legislative solutions were not the only option for Asian asylum seekers. At the time, the U.S. Attorney General’s parole power enabled him to temporarily open America’s borders in emergency situations. Congress could then pass legislation to allow these refugees to apply for permanent residency status. In 1962, for instance, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) used his parole authority to admit 15,000 Chinese refugees who had settled in temporary camps in Hong Kong.69

During World War II, many U.S. soldiers and sailors serving overseas married locals and fathered children, but America’s stringent immigration laws prevented most from bringing their new families home after the war. To deal with these wartime complications, Congress passed a series of laws allowing foreign spouses and children of armed services personnel to enter the United States under a nonquota basis. The War Brides Act in 1945, officially known as the Alien Spouses of Members of the Armed Forces Act, applied only to the spouses of white and black soldiers. Less than a year later Congress passed legislation allowing the fiancées of U.S. personnel to bypass the quota system. Chinese war brides, many of whom had married U.S. soldiers of Chinese descent, won this right soon after.70 The number of Asian war brides, in part, helped to break down some of the general hostility toward Asian immigration.71

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55Lee, The Making of Asian America: 253–254; Chan, Asian Americans: 121.

56Lee, The Making of Asian America: 254.

57Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 373–374; Chan, Asian Americans: 121–122.

58Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Message to Congress on Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Laws,” 11 October 1943, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, (accessed 17 February 2016); Fred W. Riggs, Pressures on Congress: A Study of the Repeal of Chinese Exclusion (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950): 210; Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003): 223; Public Law 78-199, 57 Stat. 600 (1943).

59Displaced Persons Act, Public Law 80-774, 62 Stat. 1009 (1948); Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 231; Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990): 329–330; David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992): 22; Chan, Asian Americans: 141; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 417.

60“Immigration Quotas for Asiatics,” CQ Almanac, 1949, 5th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1950): 387,; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 19–20. For more on Judd, see Michael G. Davis, “Impetus for Immigration Reform: Asian Refugees and the Cold War,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 7, no. 3/4 (1998): 127–156.

61Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 16–17.

62“Naturalization of Asians,” CQ Almanac, 1950, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1951): 240–42,; U.S. Senate, Presidential Vetoes, 1789–1976 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1978): 388.

63Refuge Relief Act, Public Law 83-203, 67 Stat. 400 (1953); Daniels, Coming to America: 336; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 240–241; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 24; Chan, Asian Americans: 141.

64Internal Security Act of 1950, Public Law 81-831, 64 Stat. 987 (1950); Michael J. Ybarra, Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt (Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2004): 508, 510; Mitchell T. Maki et al., Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999): 65.

65Daniels, Asian America: 307–308; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 276. For more on illegal Chinese immigration during the Cold War, see Mae M. Ngai, “Legacies of Exclusion: Illegal Chinese Immigration during the Cold War Years,” Journal of American Ethnic History 18, no. 1 (1998): 3–35. And for more general information on the history of illegal immigration, see Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

66“Immigration Laws,” CQ Almanac, 1957, 13th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1958): 670–671,; Immigration Act Amendments of 1957, Public Law 85-316, 71 Stat. 639 (1957).

67Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993): 75.

68Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 24.

69Daniels, Coming to America: 335–336; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 160–161.

70Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002): 188; Daniels, Asian America: 306n41; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 21–22; Alien Spouses of Members of the Armed Services Act of 1945, Public Law 79-271, 59 Stat. 659 (1945); Public Law 79-713, 60 Stat. 975 (1946).

71Philip E. Wolgin and Irene Bloemraad, “‘Our Gratitude to Our Soldiers’: Military Spouses, Family Re-unification, and Postwar Immigration Reform,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41 (Summer 2010): 27–60.