11 November 2016 | kekseksa
Nothing new under the sun: US anti-immigration sentiment 1880-1940
Delighted though I am personally that Hillary Clinton has NOT been elected 45th President of the United States and that (hopefully) a major global conflict has been averted, I entirely understand why many are also unhappy with the election of Donald Trump, who most certainly would not have been my first choice either had I been a US voter.
But it is worth reminding ourselves that anti-immigration rhetoric and sentiment is nothing at all new in the United States and this little film (which can be found in the EYE collection) is a timely reminder of the very strong anti-immigration sentiment that prevailed during the early half of the twentieth century.
A Chinese laundryman (played in fact by native American actor Eagle Eye) takes in a child whose destitute mother has died and brings the boy up as his son.Informed against by a typically loathsome "reformer", Sing Lee is visited by the police and the boy removed forcibly from his care and placed in a home. Jack, the boy, runs away and the Chinaman defends his case in court and is awarded custody (although whether courts were often so enlightened in the face of deeply-entrenched racial prejudice is doubtful). Later in life, a successful lawyer, he has a chance to repay the debt he owes to his foster-parent.
It is not a very wonderful film (a typically efficient Vitagraph production)but it was a timely reminder of the prejudiced faced by Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1868 had been intended initially just to suspend Chinese immigration but had been renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. Not only did it bar all Chinese immigration (including that of the immediate families of Chinese Americans)but also prevented Chinese Americans from applying for citizenship, obliged the Chinese to register as a resident and placed the burden of proof upon them, so that even long-term residents (and occasionally even bona fide US citizens) might find themselves deported. The Act was not repealed until 1943.
What is worth noting about the Act is that it was largely counter-productive. Immigration is determined by economic factors that are very largely impervious to rhetoric and sentiment and even to law. And cheap Chinese labour had been, and remained, crucial to the US economy, especially in certain states (California most notably) and in certain fields of activity (forget the cliché about Chinese laundries - the character here is a laundryman; the John Ford film The Iron Horse 1924 is a reminder that Chinese labour was essential in the construction of the railways). Just as prohibition led to an increase in organised crime, so The Chinese Exclusion Act lad to a huge increase in illegal immigration, another lucrative source of business for criminals).
One day perhaps politician and the general public will learn that immigration, insofar as it is a problem, is very largely a self-regulating one over time. In the meantime we just have to put up the same old rhetoric and the same foolish sentiments but, where they are not bolstered by ideological race-hatred (as in Nazi Germany), they only give rise to temporary follies (like Prohibition or the Chinese Exclusion Act or Trump's proposed wall between the US and Mexico) and can have no serious permanent effect upon the history of migration or the process of social and economic change. Such knee-jerk racism is in the long run more to be laughed at than feared.