After Arizona

07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Critics say that the new Arizona immigration law hearkens back to the days of Jim Crow and apartheid. Actually, it goes back to the beginning of the idea that immigrants coming into this country could be "illegal."

For the first ninety-nine years of America's existence--from 1783 to 1882--there were no illegal immigrants. All who came were welcome, thus all immigrants were legal. The concept of an illegal immigrant was created in 1882 when Congress for the first time forbade Chinese workers from entering the country.

The Chinese had first come to the United States in the California gold rush. They brought with them ancient habits of hard work, cooperation, self-denial and thrift. Soon the white miners complained of "unfair" competition. George Hearst, later a U.S. Senator from California worried, "(The Chinese) can do more work than our people and live on less. They could drive our laborers to the wall."

In the 1860's white workers failed in their attempt to blast the transcontinental railroad through the hard granite of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, laying down their picks in defeat. Workers from the country that built the Great Wall were brought in and the Chinese succeeded. Governor Leland Stanford of California wrote President Andrew Johnson, "Without the Chinese it would have been impossible to complete the western portion of this great National highway."

Suddenly government officials worried about terrible things that would befall the nation if the Chinese stayed. James Blaine of Maine warned that those "who eat beef and bread and drink beer... will have to drop his knife and fork and take up Chopsticks [if] those who live on rice are allowed to stay in America. Either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it."

In 1882 Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which Senator George Hoar condemned as "nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination." But most Americans agreed with the young Theodore Roosevelt who warned, "No greater calamity could now befall the United States than to have the Pacific slope fill up with a Mongolian population."

The cry of "The Chinese Must Go" now rang across the American West. From California north to Alaska, west to Colorado and south to New Mexico, posters told the Chinese to get out and that those who hesitated faced the barrel of a white man's rifle. In Fresno, a mob killed Chinese workers in their beds. In Tacoma, the mayor led hundreds of armed citizens who rousted the Chinese from their homes and pushed them onto waiting trains. In Seattle, the chief of police led a mob that marched the local Chinese at gunpoint up the gangplank of a waiting ship.

In the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, armed white miners surrounded the Chinatown and the massacre began. The first Wyoming state official to arrive on the scene described the aftermath: "Not a living Chinaman--man, woman or child--was left in the town... and not a single house, shanty, or structure of any kind, that had ever been inhabited by a Chinaman was left unburned. The smell of burning human flesh was sickening and almost unendurable, and was plainly discernible for more than a mile along the railroad both east and west." In the court trials that followed, there were no convictions.

The Chinese were effectively cleansed from the American West and the few survivors retreated to Chinatowns, where they were isolated from the American mainstream. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 Magnuson Act, but large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

As the country once again calls upon Congress to act, we might consider that the Chinese Exclusion Act is perhaps one of most damaging laws in U.S. legislative history. The United States spent untold treasure and sacrificed thousands of lives fighting wars-- World War II in the Pacific, the Korean War and the Vietnam War--all of which might have been prevented if we had better understood the Chinese people. But because of bad feelings dating back to 1882, the United States had no diplomatic relations with the most populous country on earth from 1949 to 1973--more than one quarter of the twentieth century

Now China, for most of human history the richest country on earth, is returning to its traditional position of economic leadership. America--in competition with the rest of the world--seeks to improve relations with the Middle Kingdom and seek opportunity in what will be the largest economy on the planet. Imagine that without the anti-immigrant hysteria of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we might not have fought disastrous wars in Asia and would now have many more patriotic citizens of Chinese ancestry to advantage America with the reawakening giant across the Pacific.