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What is it like to be an immigrant in 2016? Whether people are moving to seek political refuge or because of forcible displacement; whether they left because of an environmental disaster, in search of better economic or educational opportunities, or to be closer to—or farther away from—their families; the experiences of people moving to and within the United States makes up the evolving texture of the American landscape.
On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today, an activity and presentation space at this year’s Folklife Festival, will draw from our Basque and California programs to invite visitors to reflect on their own immigration and migration experiences. On the Move will also prompt visitors to think about others who are undergoing profound changes as they move—or are moved—from place to place.
Visitors will be asked to consider the journeys of their communities—their struggles, hopes, and resilience—as they reflect on the questions: how do you define yourself? Where is “home”? How do you connect the traditions of past generations with those of new communities? What happens to those who have been left behind? How might you help others immigrating or migrating today? If you were forced to move, what would you do? What would you take with you?
Our partners—Alliance for California Traditional Arts, American Anthropological Association, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Basque Library of the University of Nevada, Basque Museum and Cultural Center, National Museum of American History, and Radio Bilingüe—will help us explore these themes. We will lead discussions about cultural heritage, questioning if and how particular practices evolve from the homeland, such as the Basque American tradition of “reading the trees” through arborglyph tree carvings. Oral historians will provide tips on how to record the stories of their families and communities.
On the Move interviewers will invite Festival visitors to digitally map their heritage. The results will grow over the course of the Festival and be displayed at an indoor installation in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. Facilitators will prompt visitors to Tweet responses to workshop questions, broadening the participation space virtually as we broaden our perceptions.
In signing the historic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson observed, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources—because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.” With so many people on the move, what Johnson said seems ever more true and probing now than in his time. Come explore these issues with On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today.
Alissa Stern is the coordinator for On the Move at the 2016 Folklife Festival. She also works with threatened languages in Bali, Indonesia.
Editor’s note: Social Explorer is a company that provides access to current and historical census data and demographic information to let users create maps and reports to illustrate, analyze, and understand demography and social change. Social Explorer media editor Sydney Beveridge submitted this blog post to us, originally posted on their site.
Social Explorer created custom data maps to tell the story of America’s immigrant heritage for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today. Visit our banner display to trace immigrant journeys across the nation and through time.
Social Explorer, Inc. is a small business specializing in data visualization and information design. First conceived in 1999, Social Explorer breaks down the barriers to large-scale data analysis and demographic mapping. With support from the National Science Foundation and The New York Times, we developed a sophisticated data system and a simple online interface to engage users with current and historical demographic data. Our custom products, in addition to our popular subscription-based research tools on SocialExplorer.com, are used by millions of people around the world.
For this project, we combined detailed data analysis with our design expertise to create this series of maps. The historical immigration data come from the 1940 Complete Count Census as compiled and made available by the Minnesota Population Center, Integrated Public Use Micro-Data Samples. The recent data are from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.
We start our journey with a map of the foreign born population in 1940 that highlights earlier waves of immigration across the United States. Back then, 8.3 percent of the population was born abroad, or more than one in 12 people.
Today, 13.1 percent the U.S. population was born abroad, which means that more than one in eight Americans are immigrants. The next map shows how the foreign-born population is distributed across the United States all the way down to the county level. Explore the map to see where immigrants are concentrated and which origins are common in different parts of the country.
Learn about the foreign born population in your own hometown with SocialExplorer.com’s interactive map. Zoom in for more detail, and click through the menus to explore by different ancestry groups.
Visit our banner and the rest of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival from through July 4 and July 7 through 10.
Find out more about Social Explorer at our website.
We are delighted to collaborate with the Smithsonian on this project. Other partners include Pearson Education Publishing, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the Ellis Island Museum. Our honors include a Webby Award, two Webby Honorees, a Modern Library Awards Gold Medal, and a Reference and User Services Association (a division of the American Library Association) Outstanding Reference Source Award.
“If you don’t know what your history is, if you are denied that history, a portion of you is missing.”
Ted Gong, a retired Foreign Service officer, pointed to the other panelists onstage.
“You’re allowing somebody else to tell you what is important in the history that made you and you and you.” He shifted his gaze to the audience. “That is a civil rights issue. I should know my history. I should be allowed to hear my history.”
During the On the Move session called “Conversations on Immigration: Where Policy Meets the Personal,” each participant highlighted the different ways in which immigrant communities occupy cultural spaces, particularly regarding issues of poverty, racial profiling, and historical erasure.
Kumera Genet, a second-generation Texan whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1970s, discussed the complications of obtaining refugee status in the United States, where all applicants must belong to a “persecuted group,” as defined by the United Nations. Once these candidates are legally recognized as refugees, they require a U.S. sponsor who will pledge financial responsibility for them and their relatives. Members of the extended family often act as sponsors.
In this way, a stark difference exists between refugees and undocumented immigrants: refugees obtain an official legal status from the United States. They also might receive social and economic benefits, including English language classes, job training, and rent subsidies.
However, as the panelists stressed, the first refugees fleeing their countries tend to belong to the upper echelons of the social strata. The privileges of wealth grant them the financial resources to acquire legal help when seeking asylum.
A comprehensive infrastructure for social change includes acknowledging overlapping trends of oppression, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather than mute difference in an effort to introduce one “immigrant experience,” it is crucial to recognize how various life stories contribute to understandings of social, political, and economic inequality.
An assistant professor of American studies and Latina/o studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, Perla Guerrero touched on the volatile nature of immigration policy in the United States. The capricious roots of bias against immigrants swing across a spectrum—moving from the “model minority” to the “illegal alien.”
“We need to think about the way in which ideas about race or immigration or immigrants change over time, how we displace our anxieties about race and difference, or the economy, onto different groups of people at particular times,” she said.
Brenda Pérez Amador, a board member of Many Languages One Voice, shared the ways in which Mexico and the United States maintain a politically fractious yet symbiotic relationship.
“A lot of the stuff that happens here in the U.S. directly impacts Mexico.”
When the United States experiences immigration “problems” and reprimands Mexico, the latter often compensates by strengthening its own border patrol on the boundary of Guatemala. Amador’s grandmother, who resides in Mexico City, has described the daunting situation the Salvadoran community in her neighborhood faces: in response to a heightened backlash against immigration, Mexico has begun deporting many of its own immigrants. Like undocumented workers in the United States, these marginalized groups work “under the table” to make money.
“A lot of them have issues trying to learn Spanish because a lot of the Central Americans that came in through Mexico are from indigenous cultures, so Spanish may not necessarily be their first language,” Amador explained. She also addressed prejudice against immigrants and widespread racism. “Immigration and government corruption is very similar in Mexico and the United States. It’s kind of like the same girl with a different dress.”
At the age of nine, Amador was brought from Mexico City to the United States by her parents. She is registered in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children. While the system supplies immigrant youth with a work permit and social security number, it does not offer lawful status in the country. Moreover, the program is provisional. Candidates must reapply for DACA status every two years, frequently incurring significant financial costs. They also risk the possibility of having their applications rejected and publicly exposing their status to government officials.
“Those programs don’t benefit the large population of undocumented folk, and it doesn’t fix the refugee problems that we have,” Amador said.
Under President Trump’s administration, the survival of DACA appears uncertain. [Editor’s note: the DACA program was rescinded on September 5, 2017.] In 2017, Trump stated that DACA candidates “shouldn’t be very worried.” Yet, Juan Manuel Montes, a twenty-three-year-old immigrant protected under DACA, was deported to Mexico in April. According to The Atlantic, the Department of Homeland Security released a number of contradictory memos surrounding his deportation. United We Dream, a nonpartisan organization led by immigrant youth, reported that ten DACA recipients are in federal custody. Due to the discretionary nature of the program—and its lack of legal permanence—the administration maintains the ability to dismantle DACA completely.
Structural racism permeates migrant spaces as well, creating a disparate cultural zone that leaves black communities particularly vulnerable to extradition. As reported by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, black immigrants are detained and deported five times more often, proportionately, than other undocumented groups.
“In any part of the immigration discussion, there are black issues,” Genet stated. “The travel ban affects Sudan and Somalia also—those are black countries. And so, that visibility isn’t always acknowledged when folks are talking about immigration.”
According to a report released by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 3.8 million black immigrants reside in the United States, largely hailing from the Caribbean, Africa, Central America, and South America.
Throughout the panel, Genet examined the racialized form of policing that targets specific minority communities. He grew up in a “black and brown community,” where, he said, “the criminal justice system is often a mechanism for putting predominantly young men into immigration detention for very minor offenses.”
The UndocuBlack Network, launched in 2016, seeks to broaden the conversation surrounding immigration and establish a distinct forum for black voices. Organized and led by African, Afro-Latinx, and Caribbean undocumented individuals, the network aims to consolidate resources for the black undocumented community.
Genet also emphasized the importance of listening to a variety of immigrant voices.
“Be inclusive. Have people like me in discussions like this.”
He urged the audience to remain aware of how foreign policy will impact immigration programs in the future.
Similarly, Gong underscored the responsibility of American civilians to understand the long-lasting ramifications of obstructive immigration policy in order to perceive when it manifests, again, in the present.
Gong heads the 1882 Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that educates the broader public about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As a federal law, the act prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the United States or acquiring American citizenship—solely based on their race. Although originally conceived as a temporary provision, the law garnered re-approval in 1892 and was later made permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943.
By fighting for Congress to officially apologize for its discriminatory immigration reforms, Gong hopes to establish a legal precedent that would shield immigrants from facing similar racial and ethnic prohibitions in the future.
“By passing these type of laws, you force Congress, who represents all Americans and has to respond to the constituency to say, ‘I reaffirm our founding principles, the Fourteenth Amendment.’ That reaffirmation is for all Americans, not just for the victims of that period.”
Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.
From the outside, the U.S. Appraiser’s Building in downtown San Francisco is austere and bureaucratic, rising 16 stories tall at 630 Sansome Street. Distinctive for its time, it now resembles federal buildings in other cities around the country. But on the inside, the building carries a troubling history that resonates today, even though its past is largely lost to memory.
Ever since its completion near the end of World War II, 630 Sansome Street has been home to the bureaucracy of immigration, a shifting web of government agencies whose policies have changed over time, like the nation’s anxieties about its borders. In the post-war years, and especially for San Francisco’s Chinese community, the building was synonymous with the notorious detention quarters located on the upper floors—and the suicide and hunger strike that sparked public outrage.
On September 21, 1948, Leong Bick Ha, a 32-year-old Chinese woman, hanged herself from a shower pipe in the building’s detention quarters. She had undergone a thorough examination in China, waiting several months to receive permission to enter the U.S. “Coming from afar to join her husband, she had already borne much suffering,” wrote San Francisco’s Chinese press. But when she arrived in the city, it was only to be detained at Sansome Street for three months by immigration officials. Separated from her 15-year-old son, who was held in another part of the building, “the torment in her mind was inconceivable.”
Ha’s death was hardly the first incident at 630 Sansome Street. Just three months earlier, Huang Lai, a 41-year-old Chinese woman, climbed from the window of her cell and attempted to jump from a parapet on the building’s 14th floor. After six months’ detention, the constant threat of deportation, and a grueling interrogation in a language she barely knew, Lai had given up. It took San Francisco police three hours to rescue her. Crowds witnessed the ordeal from the sidewalk.
The detention quarters at Sansome Street were a legacy of Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” the major point of entry for immigrants who had crossed the Pacific, until a fire shut it down in 1940. Between 1910 and 1940, “about a half a million people entered or departed the country through Angel Island,” says Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. As Lee and her co-author Judy Yung show in Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, “the island,” as it was known locally, wasn’t comparable to its counterpart in the East. Whereas Ellis Island came to symbolize an open-door nation of immigrants, the purpose of Angel Island was to close America’s gates, to restrict entry to newcomers from Asia. On Angel Island, the entire process was racially driven: Europeans were separated from Asians, and Chinese were segregated from Japanese and other nationalities. Most immigrants were held for a few hours—at most a few days—while inspectors performed routine checks for signs of disease, criminality, insanity or disability.
But not the Chinese, who were detained for longer periods pending intensive interrogation and verification of their eligibility to land. The majority stayed for three to four weeks, but many waited much longer, some even enduring years of confinement. A 1909 report, prepared for the Secretary of Labor as construction at Angel Island was underway, described the island’s “delightful. . .scenic, climactic, and health conditions.” The San Francisco Chronicle boasted of the “finest Immigration Station in the world.” But this rhetoric belied reality. Housing was cramped and poorly insulated, and inspectors reserved harsh, cruel methods for Chinese detainees. “The only place in the United States where a man is guilty until he is proved innocent is at the immigration station,” remarked Charles Jung, who worked as an interpreter on the island between 1926 and 1930.
Even in the decades prior to Angel Island’s existence, anti-Chinese violence had been a constant in the development of California and the West. The mid-19th century Gold Rush attracted Chinese laborers who sought jobs with mining companies or along an expanding network of railroads. In response, nativist movements and their members pressured employers to fire Chinese workers and lobbied U.S. officials to enact anti-Chinese measures. Years of populist agitation against the Chinese culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was signed into federal law in 1882. It was the first major federal law restricting immigration to the United States—and the first to target a specific group of immigrants.
Although the law banned most Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese naturalization, an estimated 303,000 Chinese still entered the country during the exclusion period under its exempted categories: returning laborers, merchants, U.S. citizens, and the wives, sons and daughters of merchants. Yet immigration officials, tasked with enforcing the restrictions, treated all Chinese people with suspicion and contempt. Detention facilities resembled prisons, and the Chinese, who spoke little or no English, were expected to prove their identities and marital relationships in punishing interrogations.
The 1940 fire at Angel Island, blamed on an overloaded circuit in the basement of the administration building, destroyed the Immigration Station. The Immigration Naturalization Service (INS), the precursor to today’s Department of Homeland Security, scrambled to find a place to house detainees. The decision was to relocate to the Appraiser’s Building at Sansome Street, which was slated to open later that year. Wartime shortages of manpower and materials delayed construction. In 1944, following years of makeshift arrangements at a building on Silver Avenue, the INS made its permanent move. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, an architect known for his National Park lodges, train stations, and the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint, designed the soaring structure under the auspices of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Floors 10 through 16 were reserved for INS offices and “temporary housing for new immigrant arrivals awaiting entry processing.”
World War II transformed the status of the Chinese in America; an estimated 13,000 Chinese Americans enlisted in the armed forces and China, a U.S. ally, successfully pressured Congress to end exclusion in 1943. But conditions for Chinese immigrants at Sansome Street continued as if nothing had changed.
Leong Bick Ha arrived in San Francisco in 1948 to join her husband, former U.S. Army sergeant Ng Bak Teung of New York. He secured the right to bring her into the country under the War Brides Act, which waived immigration quotas for women who married American GIs. Amended in 1947 to include Asian spouses, the War Brides Act was supposed to expedite her move to the U.S. Yet Ha waited for three months at Sansome Street, separated from her son, while authorities investigated her marital status. Performing poorly at her interrogation, a nerve-wracking experience, she was told that her marriage could not be confirmed and deportation was imminent.
The Chinese-language press in San Francisco erupted in fury at the news of Ha’s death, citing “racial discrimination and the unreasonable immigration procedures that put stress on Chinese immigrants,” write historians Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, offering a roundup of Chinese editorial opinion in translation that appears in Chinese American Voices from the Gold Rush to the Present, a documentary collection. Ha’s story even traveled to China, where accounts of suffering at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities were not uncommon.
At Sansome Street, all 104 women detainees, the majority Chinese war brides like Ha, launched a hunger strike to protest immigration policies. Officials tried to downplay events, telling reporters that “the women did not eat because that was the way Chinese mourned the deceased,” says historian Xiaojian Zhao in her book Remaking Chinese America: Immigration: Family, and Community. “That these middle-aged Chinese country women would take group action against an agency of the U.S. government was inconceivable to the INS,” she adds. It wasn’t long before the American Civil Liberties Union got involved. Facing a storm of criticism from lawyers, local politicians, and the public, San Francisco’s INS district office shuttered the detention quarters in 1954, while keeping its offices in the building.
Today, 630 Sansome Street teems with activity. Run by the Department of Homeland Security, the building houses a number of federal immigration agencies. Citizenship oaths and interviews are administered to new and aspiring Americans on the sixth floor. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has its northern California field office on the fifth. Deportation cases are heard in the fourth-floor courtroom, where nervous energy and the sounds of Spanish fill the air. It’s one of the busiest immigration courts in the country, handling about 10,000 new cases a year, many from those seeking asylum from poverty and bloodshed in Central America.
“U.S. immigration history is often told as a narrative of progressive reform,” says Lee. Xenophobic attitudes that began with the Exclusion Act are said to have waned in the postwar period. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished national origins quotas restricting non-European immigration.
But reality tells a different story. Dramatic ICE raids might capture headlines, but for immigrants at Sansome Street, encounters with federal power are far more quotidian, if no less cruel. The building belongs to the slow, grinding immigration bureaucracy, and its history shows how anxieties have shifted, from the country’s western shores to its southern borders. Detention remains a key component of American immigration policy, but instead of the old system—under federal control and limited to major ports of entry—today, it’s often done through the private sector.
As CIVIC, an organization that monitors conditions at detention centers around the country, states on its website, “legal permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties, asylum-seekers, and victims of human trafficking are detained for weeks, months, and sometimes years.” Abuses at detention centers, many run by for-profit prison corporations are rampant, according to advocates. Immigrants in ICE custody have died of neglect and sexual assault is pervasive. The average daily population of detained immigrants was 5,000 in 1994. In 2014, it was 34,000, says the Detention Watch Network. A 2016 DHS report put the total number of immigrant detainees at 352,882. The U.S. is now home to the largest immigrant detention system in the world.
Today at Sansome Street, immigrants from Central America, fleeing poverty or seeking opportunity, find themselves in bureaucratic limbo, just as the Chinese once did. The building stands as a reminder that the troubled past isn’t past at all.
Entrepreneurial success and innovative spirit can come in many forms, and emerge from innumerable paths. The same can be said for stories of immigrants' challenges and triumphs. Standing at the crossroad of those two themes are present-day innovators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs who are also immigrants to the United States. It is a fascinating confluence, and the National Museum of American History wanted to learn more.
Curators of Many Voices, One Nation, an upcoming exhibition exploring the balance between unity and pluralism in America, set out to acquire insights from several individuals about the intersections between entrepreneurialism and the immigrant experience. Interviewees talked about their places of origin, their journeys, and how they crafted their sense of self and American-ness, all while striving to become successful leaders in their respective fields. The results of this oral history project are now available through a brand-new online exhibition called Family of Voices. Through oral history excerpts and personal objects, participants in Family of Voices offered their unique experiences but also revealed common themes shared by many immigrants around the country.
For example, not every story of success began with a first job or great invention. For many, it was the importance of sports that first served as a cultural space to connect and learn from others, and to prove themselves.
"I joined every single after-school club, including bowling, and I was the worst bowler. Or softball—I couldn’t even hit the ball, but I joined. I signed up and I went," Hyatt Hotels Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim offered in her oral history.
Banikarim, who fled Iran with her family in 1979, explained that these sorts of activities also inspired her to embrace her heritage. She had gone for many years by the name Mary, but by her senior year of high school her preference changed.
"I had two cheerleading outfits. One of them said Mary and the other one actually said Maryam," Banikarim said. "So already by senior year I had come more into being confident or more into myself."
Many of the stories from the project emphasized the importance of languages as part of the immigrant experience. Interviewees volunteered their thoughts about both the challenge and importance of learning English as a new language, and many revealed maintaining non-English traditions within their homes and familial conversations.
"We only speak Portuguese among ourselves," Galdino Claro, a Brazilian-born executive who has lived all over the world, explained in his interview. "I only speak English with my son if it's a school-related thing or a business-related thing. But if it's any family-related, informal conversation, it is in Portuguese. He wouldn't talk with me in a different language."
Frits van Paasschen, most recently the CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, offered a comparable depiction of language use in his home. Speaking Dutch to his children "has been a wonderful way for us to be closer," he said.
Bill and Mary Kim's Korean heritage is "one of the things we like to teach our children. . . . There are a lot of traditions that should be preserved, and I like to be part of that tradition and help the next generation."
As a scholar of American holidays, some of my favorite stories centered on food and holidays. Gert Boyle, the "One Tough Mother" who grew Columbia Sportswear into a global corporation, related the story of her family's first Christmas in America after fleeing Nazi Germany.
"My mother said she'd have to go buy a goose. She went to the grocery store to buy a goose and the grocer said, 'No, no, no. You buy a turkey. You want to be in this country, you don't buy a goose, you buy a turkey.' So we had turkey," Boyle said.
Chilean-born Juan Pablo Cappello, whose mother is American, remembers July 4, 1976.
"I remember the bicentennial. . . . [In Chile] there was a curfew and things were very controlled," Cappello said. "So coming here, this was just such a celebration of country. It seemed amazing to me."
Family of Voices reveals a deep appreciation for the opportunities our interviewees found when they came to the United States.
"I was happy to be able to demonstrate to myself—demonstrate to the world—that even though I was educated somewhere else," said Moroccan-born Khalid Fellahi, general manager of Western Union Digital Ventures. "Even if I grew up in a completely different environment, I managed to come here and be recognized as someone who can be a strong contributor to business."
Padma and Raj Vattikuti, philanthropists and community leaders originally from India, echoed the sentiment in their interview.
"America gave us such opportunity," said Padma. "We had to think like Americans and become an American. It took a longer time for me to come to terms with it because I always carried India in my heart. Anytime I thought of home, I would always say I would like to go home, that meant India. Now when I'm visiting India and I say I'm missing home, it is America now."
There are many pathways to being American. "Migration is not only difficult," said George Feldenkreis, chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis International who left Cuba in 1961, "it is also very traumatic if you have not gone through the experience. It's very painful to know that you're leaving all your friends, that you're leaving your family, that you're losing the security—the sense of belonging."
Visitors to the Family of Voices online exhibition will discover that each story is distinctive and unique, yet together they resonate with that underlying belief that it was worth leaving someplace familiar and finding a new identity and purpose in America. Perhaps the final word belongs to Shaista Mahmood, who with husband Ray lives just a few minutes from the National Museum of American History: "Yes, I was born in Pakistan, but this is my country."
Daniel Gifford is the museum's manager of museum advisory committees and a project historian. He worked with the Family of Voices team to collect and excerpt the project's oral histories. His last blog post was about birdwatching in America.
You may not have heard about the Hart-Celler Act, but as the foundation of our current immigration laws it has had a dramatic impact on U.S. demographics and the American people over the last fifty years. And in turn, when people from around the globe come to the United States, it influences the objects we collect and the stories we tell in the national museum.
In a new display opening this week in the museum and during our free program on Thursday, October 1, we will be asking, "How did the 1965 Immigration Act change America?" I spoke with Historian Philip E. Wolgin, who researches immigration and refugee policy and served as an adviser for the new exhibition, to explore some of the key aspects of this legislation before Thursday's program.
What was the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and why should we care fifty years later?
The Hart-Celler Act was one of the major pieces of legislation governing our nation's immigration system—how we admit people from abroad into our country. Hart-Celler opened the doors to immigrants from around the world, and in many ways, the act created the modern system of immigrant admissions we have today. It is still largely the basis for our current laws.
How was the Hart-Celler Act different from previous immigration law?
From the 1920s through 1965, immigrant admissions were based on the "national origins quota system," a system that established the ability to get an immigrant visa on where the immigrant came from (the national origins part) and on their race. The system explicitly favored immigrants from northern and western Europe, while discriminating against those from southern and eastern Europe, and excluding Asians—and other immigrants who weren’t white—entirely.
After World War II, opponents of the racially discriminatory national origins system spent twenty years working to dismantle the quotas, and the Hart-Celler Act was the product of these struggles. In doing away with national origins, and in replacing it with a system that was on its face race-neutral, the 1965 act can be seen as part of the civil rights moment in which it was passed, coming just one year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the same year as the Voting Rights Act.
In replacing national origins as the main deciding factor in who entered the country, legislators put in place a preference system that favored family reunification (spouses, children, siblings, etc.) first and foremost, and to a lesser extent, employment-based migration. Although we have tinkered a bit with the numbers allotted to these preferences, the general structure we put in place in 1965 is still the system we have today.
What are some legacies of this law that affect our communities today?
Although in signing the act into law, President LBJ stated that it was "not a revolutionary bill," Hart-Celler opened the doors to immigrants from around the world, ending the heavy emphasis on European immigrants that marked the earlier immigration system. To give one example, the number of immigrants gaining permanent visas from Asia in the 1970s was ten times as many as those in the 1950s. This represented a really remarkable change: while we have always been a nation of immigrants, and a nation of immigrants from around the world, the act helped to make us a far more multicultural nation.
That being said, the act also had a number of other important consequences, many of which scholars have viewed as "unintended." For one thing, the bill imposed the first numerical restrictions on immigrants from the western hemisphere, which historian Mae Ngai argues represented a forty percent reduction from previous immigration. And this inability to get legal visas, along with the ending of the temporary work visa program, the Bracero [guest worker] program, and continued demand for immigrant labor, set the conditions for greater unauthorized immigration in the decades after the act.
Joan Fragaszy Troyano is an ACLS Public Fellow in the Division of Home and Community Life.
Interested to learn more? Come visit the new display on the second floor and join us on October 1, when historians Mae Ngai of Columbia University; Matt Garcia, director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University; Erika Lee, director of the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center; and City University of New York Graduate Center sociologist Richard Alba discuss how this historic legislation shaped the face of the nation.
It’s the 1830s and you’re in need of the most luxurious amusement in Manhattan. Naturally, you grab your bonnet and parasol and head to…Battery Park? Yes, that Battery Park. In the early part of the 19th century, it was home to a place called Castle Garden, which served as one of America’s most popular amusement parks until it became the precursor to Ellis Island.
The castle-like fort at the tip of the Battery wasn’t always a pleasure ground. Rather, it originated during a time of war. In 1808, foreseeing the danger of British invasion, New Yorkers started to build a series of forts to defend the harbor. Southwest Battery, as it was called, was built on a manmade island right off the shore of the southern tip of Manhattan. It was outfitted with 28 cannons and military fortifications.
Though the British did end up invading the United States during the War of 1812, laying waste to Washington, D.C., they never attacked New York. After the war, the fort was decommissioned and the Battery was filled in with city garbage to make it part of Manhattan. The government leased Castle Clinton, as the fort was known, to New York City, which renamed it Castle Garden and turned it into an amusement park.
Roller coasters and cartoon characters weren’t yet part of the definition of “amusement park,” but that didn’t bother fashionable New Yorkers. They flocked to Castle Garden for harbor views, a meal at its huge restaurant, and perhaps an opera or a fireworks show. “The illuminations, bands of music, and multitudes of people,” wrote one observer, “give it the appearance of an enchanted castle. The sea breeze, with delicious coolness, breathes its freshness from the bay. Refreshments of every kind are to be obtained at moderate cost; nor must a favourite American beverage called mint julep, a sort of punch, pass unnoticed in the catalogue of the delicacies, with which the place abounds.”
Castle Garden got fancier and more popular as the years went by. Its opera house became world-famous in 1850, when P.T. Barnum presented opera sensation Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale" there. Her American debut attracted 5,000 spectators and made her an instant hit. The park also hosted exhibitions of the latest in science and technology, like a demonstration of an underwater electronic explosive and the newfangled telegraph. Or, you could simply chill in the park’s saltwater baths for the “invigorating experience of…pure, renovating ocean-brine.”
But big changes were afoot in the United States, and the lazy days of Castle Garden ended in 1855. So many immigrants had been pouring into New York through its docks that the city needed a central processing location, so it repurposed Castle Garden and turned it into the Emigrant Landing Depot. It was New York’s first immigration center, and soon tens of thousands of people were pouring through its gates. Each immigrant was given a health examination, registered and given water for bathing before being released into the city with information about his or her final destination.
All in all, over 8 million immigrants passed through Castle Garden—two out of every three immigrants who entered the U.S. between 1855 and 1890, when Ellis Island was opened. The scene inside was so chaotic that it even sparked its own word: Kesselgarden, a Yiddish word that refers to a confusing, noisy situation and that emerged from Eastern European immigrants’ pronunciation of the name of the center.
Today, you can still catch a glimpse of Castle Garden in Battery Park—just look for the castle-like stone fortifications. The site is a national monument and you can search for the names of ships and immigrants who passed through Castle Garden on its website. It may be less known than Ellis Island, but the site was just as important to the millions of immigrants—and pleasure seekers—who passed through its gates.
Ted Gong is a modest man who emits a kindness reminiscent of my own Chinese father. He’s also the executive director of the 1882 Foundation and retired Foreign Service officer. On this particular afternoon, he was dressed in comfortable blue flannel—an attempt, I’m sure, to maintain some dignity in Washington, D.C.’s boiling summer heat.
Earlier in the day, Ted had contributed some particularly compelling arguments during “Where Policy Meets Personal,” a panel that examined issues of immigration and legal protocols at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
We moved into the shade of an elm tree. I had some questions for him about the oddly specific name of the foundation, current East Asian immigration policies, and the complex sectors of the Chinese American community.
Ted explained in a steady baritone that the 1882 Foundation is committed to issues of civil rights, race relations, and immigration reform for the Asian Pacific American community. The organization also records the stories of Chinese immigrants to pass down throughout the generations and preserve Chinese American oral history.
The organization draws its name from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only American law ever passed that prevented immigration and naturalization on the basis of race. Ted’s mother was affected by this law when she tried to immigrate to the United States.
“My mother tried to come here when she was sixteen years old,” he said. “She was held at Angel Island, an immigration detention center on San Francisco Bay. They say it’s the Ellis Island of the West, but it was designed to detain and hold Chinese people to ban them under the 1882 act. She stayed there for eleven months before she was deported back to China.”
After the Gold Rush in 1849, Chinese workers were drawn to the West Coast in pursuit of economic opportunities, such as the railroad industry. Other laborers would not work for the low wages the railroad companies offered, but Chinese workers would. As a result, they were blamed for stealing jobs. Ted explains that the Chinese workers, deemed racially inferior by many Americans, became the scapegoat for declining wages and unemployment that infested the country.
In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into effect. The act halted Chinese immigration for ten years and precluded Chinese living in America from becoming U.S. citizens. The law was only repealed during World War II when the United States relied on China as an ally against Japan.
“The original act was meant to be a temporary exclusion,” Ted explained. “It then was renewed ten years later in 1892, upheld in 1902, and then made permanent,” Ted explains. “So when people talk today about temporary revisions of law, we need to be cautious of what that actually means.”
A thought popped into my head: history repeats itself.
On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed portions of President Trump’s travel bans via executive order to go into effect. The decision means that people and refugees from six mainly Muslim nations will be temporarily banned from entering the United States. The only exception is for those with a narrowly defined “bona fide” relationship, such as a close familial tie, with an entity in the country.
“We’ve had executive orders that expanded background checks—although not the Chinese Exclusion policy, because that was just plain racist,” Ted said. “Executive orders come and go, and there are good ones and bad ones. America isn’t obligated to take refugees; we set our immigration policies every year. The idea that the current executive order has done something new to exclude refugees is not true.”
Ted paused. He looked past my left shoulder at the crowds dancing to the drumbeats from another session. He then peers at me through his thin-rimmed glasses and asks me about my own immigrant background.
I was born in Fuzhou, Fujian, my mom’s hometown in China. A month after I was born, my dad left for America to begin graduate school in Texas. My mom and I followed him to America three and a half years later. For me, America is the only home I have ever really known.
As I unraveled the concise version of my life story, I admitted to Ted one of my most shameful secrets: I grew up embarrassed to be Chinese. Until sophomore year of college, I remained willfully ignorant of my Chinese heritage.
I leaned forward, gesturing more than usual and avoiding prolonged eye contact, something I tend to do when I feel highly self-conscious. As I verbalized these insecurities, all I saw was understanding and sadness compounded on Ted’s face. I imagine he has heard similar sentiments shared from the Chinese American youth he has spoken to. In an eerie way, it felt like I was confiding all my worst secrets to my own father, though I never have before.
I paused. I noticed the sounds of children playing tag in the background. Strange that I hadn’t heard them earlier. Ted sat patiently, observing me. His silence created a space absent of judgement. It comforted me. I imagine him doing this every day when he gathers his oral histories at the 1882 Foundation. I told him that only recently have I begun attempting to uncover more of my Chinese American history, from policies to current social issues affecting our community in the United States.
Ted proceeded to delve into the history and contemporary groups of Chinese immigrants.
“Fujian people do not traditionally migrate to America like the Cantonese or the Taiwanese, so they didn’t have those people to draw them here,” Ted said. “The time I was in Hong Kong doing anti-trafficking stuff, the Chinese trafficking tended to be Fujianese. You get people caught in vans and trucks through Europe who were trying to embark on something to the United States.”
As a former senior advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, Ted has seen how different immigration tactics have manufactured severe current divisions within the current Chinese American community.
Some Chinese move to the United States as professionals or students—my father is under this group. Another faction consists of unskilled, agricultural workers who came to work in restaurants or back rooms. Ted explained that the current sector of the educated and upper-class Chinese immigrants constitutes the more politically conservative groups.
“They’re pro-business—most probably voted Trump,” he said. “In Austin, Texas’s case, they’re very anti-affirmative action. For example, with the recent Abby Fisher case, in which a white female student argued that she was denied admission to The University of Texas at Austin based on race, this Chinese community strongly supported anti-affirmative action.”
Ted’s own generation differs from this recent group of upper-class, more conservative, immigrants. His group that grew up with the civil rights movement tends to be more progressive on social issues.
“For example, we generally gravitate toward Black Lives Matter, whereas this other group gravitates toward stricter policing,” Ted said. “And they’re very strong and vocal about it.”
Throughout our discussion, I kept thinking: history repeats itself.
In America, we erect memorials and museums to remind ourselves of the past: to celebrate and to contemplate. But I also see them as reminders of what happens when people become complacent with the status quo. Time and time again, immigration bans and racial prejudices repeat due to situational politics, economics, and opportunism. Demographics of people emerge as dehumanized chess pieces in a larger power struggle.
Every day, I think about how different my life would have been if I had never immigrated to America. The United States has become home for so many immigrants like my parents, and the only home for children of immigrants like me.
After the conversation with Ted, I walked out on the National Mall to see a young Chinese girl chasing her father on the lawn. She was probably around six or seven years old, dressed in a sun dress and pigtails. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself. For me, growing up as a Chinese American girl meant being attacked with various racist or micro-aggressive remarks, cringing every time I heard my parents’ broken English, and silently despising my own heritage.
As I watched her dad carry her on his shoulders and dance across the Mall, the little girl looked like Supergirl in flight. Hoisted on her father’s shoulders, she must have felt invincible in that moment. I hope she won’t feel what I felt growing up.
I firmly believe empathy is one of the most important qualities we can cultivate in ourselves. Equipped with empathy, we can connect to a specific story from a stranger, harness the anger from the injustices that permeate our society, and take action—whatever that may look like for us individually.
Especially with my generation and the younger ones that follow, we need to participate. We need to tune in and revisit history to learn—and relearn—what is at stake for decisions made. Then, we need to take our stand. Otherwise, history will have no choice but to repeat itself.
Laura Zhang is studying neuroscience and Plan II Honors at The University of Texas at Austin. Currently, she is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and exudes a passion for social justice, stories, and dogs of all kinds.
Nestled between two bustling areas—food concessions and the Sounds of California—the On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today tent engaged visitors in conversations beyond the polarizing political debates currently taking place within our society. Using interactive activities and hosting daily presentations in multiple formats, On the Move pushed visitors to think about how immigration and migration affects their own lives, families, and communities.
Despite the steep competition for visitors’ attention, On the Move drew attendees who were curious about the large U.S. and world maps that framed the tent’s exterior. Guests were invited to mark three points on a map: where they were born, where they live now, and where they call home. The third question spurred conversations about how “home” is defined, how this place has or has not changed over time, and how this movement and these changing definitions impact how we define ourselves and our relationships to those communities.
The majority of visitors with whom we interacted identified the District-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area as their current place of residence, but listed other locations as their home. It was interesting seeing the various locations people have traveled from, both inside the United States and globally, before arriving in the D.C. area. Not surprisingly, these multi-location trajectories that radiate out of and into D.C. highlight the increasing diversity of the region.
In addition to these physical mapping activities, On the Move volunteers also invited visitors to participate in a digital survey about how immigration and migration impacts their lives and communities. Each day, the anonymous survey responses were added to a database, which then generated a series of graphic representations of visitor responses. These were displayed in a scrolling video in the Arts and Industries Building, where additional volunteers were stationed to discuss survey results.
Based on our experiences, visitors were interested in engaging with others on the topic of immigration and the specific experiences of their own families. While many On the Move presentations directly involved visitors in activities or conversation, we got the sense that they would have welcomed even more opportunities for interaction, especially among other visitors. Increased visitor-to-visitor interaction, facilitated by staff and volunteers, could lead to more conversations about cross-cultural connections, the varied meanings of home, and even more impactful discussions about issues related to migration and immigration today.
Raquel Escobar and Priscila Hernandez are fellows in the 2016 Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program. Escobar is doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hernandez recently earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies at the University of New Mexico.