THE BLOG
05/09/2011 04:52 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2011

On Immigration, the Past Is Prologue

This week 129 years ago, the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, ushering in an era when virtually all persons of Chinese descent (regardless of country of birth) were barred from entering the United States (with few exceptions). Immigration from China was effectively halted.

The Chinese Exclusion Act sparked discriminatory state and local laws, which grew by wildfire; laws were passed restricting the ability of Asians to live in certain localities, to work in certain industries and to have other civil rights guaranteed to white residents. National laws would seek to deport all Chinese immigrants already in America -- even legal immigrants -- unless they could produce residence certificates issued only on the affidavits of white witnesses. (You're not alone if you see frightening similarities to Arizona's "papers, please" law). In short, the civil rights (and dignity) of Asian immigrants were eviscerated.

Then, in the 1850s, the Know-Nothings struck against Catholic immigrants, with nativists rioting against Catholics throughout America. In cities like Boston, "Help Wanted" signs were often accompanied by the caveat "No Irish Need Apply." Prejudice against Italians resulted in the lynchings of several Italian-American immigrants. And Polish-American immigrants in Detroit and the industrial north were often subjected to the most dangerous work conditions in manufacturing.

Nowadays, the bills might have innocuous names and the populations targeted different, but there's the same underlying fear of newcomers. And there are the same types of politicians exploiting those fears and spreading misinformation.

Time and time again, immigrants have been met with fear and misinformation, often stoked by politicians desperate for electoral success -- even if it means taking the low road and appealing to the worst instincts in American life.

At the same time, generation after generation, place after place, there have been brave and just plain decent folks who have stood up for what's right. And, over time, they've won. They've always won, in the end.

In every era, there have been men and women willing to make a stand, people who appealed to the best part of America's heritage: pushing for more opportunity, freedom and full membership in the American society. And, there have been groups like Immigrants' List, fighting for equal rights and opportunity for all who live and work in America.

That's why we seek your support: because in a world where past is prologue, we have the opportunity to learn from history, instead of being doomed to repeat it.

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