Files from enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Seattle illuminate current immigration and citizenship proposals.
The anti-immigrant itch turns to a nasty rash whenever the country has economic trouble or feels threatened. Maybe we’d count to 10 before making whole groups of people suffer for our national anxieties if we thought about how past episodes look to us today.
Trish Hackett Nicola spends time every week delving into immigration history. She volunteers at the National Archives at Seattle with four other people who are bringing order to thousands of boxes of files on early Chinese Americans. This felt like a good time to visit with her about the work she does.
The files were compiled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they exist because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was designed to keep out Chinese labor but also treated citizens of Chinese ancestry differently from everyone else. Nicola said the law was supposed to last 10 years, but Congress kept renewing it, and each time, it got more strict.
If your family came from China between 1882 and 1943, you had to carry a special identity certificate proving you were legally here, even if you were a citizen. And anytime you left the country or re-entered, you’d be questioned in detail and forced to prove your identity.
“People are starting to know about what happened with the Japanese Americans,” Nicola said, referring to their internment during World War II. “But people know little about the Chinese.”
The act was spurred by fear that Chinese immigrants would take jobs from white workers. “The Chinese would work for lower wages,” Nicola said. “They didn’t really want to work for lower wages, but they didn’t have much say about that.”
Some Americans feared their different habits, language and ways of dressing. The immigrants were labeled criminals, drug users and gamblers.
The act prevented any new Chinese arrivals from becoming citizens and kept most Chinese women out of the country, while other laws prevented Chinese from marrying non-Chinese.
The files touch on some of those injustices, but they are mostly about travel restrictions.
Susan Karren, director of the National Archives at Seattle, said people returning to the country, even from a trip to Vancouver, B.C. would have to answer detailed questions about their homes, relatives and neighbors. These are details that most of us would have a hard time with. “If my eligibility depended on even knowing my neighbors’ full names, I’d be stuck outside the border,” Karren said.
The immigration records came to the archives in 1991 from the old Immigration and Naturalization building in Seattle. It was difficult to find information in the boxes of files, but the volunteers are making it possible for families or historians to easily locate particular people, or kinds of information. And volunteers are essential because the staff is so small.
Nicola started a blog in 2015, chineseexclusionfiles.com, where she posts files she finds particularly interesting. She even found a family that made its way to Buffalo, N.Y., where she grew up and where she first got interested in genealogy and history.
“I’m Irish and German — 50 percent on both sides.” She said her ancestors came to the United States at different times in the 1800s, fleeing hard times and hoping to make a better life here.
Nicola developed an interest in family stories that eventually led to starting a business doing genealogical research, after she worked as a certified public accountant then received a master’s degree in library science. She and her family moved around the country but settled in Seattle (her husband is from Portland).
She started volunteering at the archives in 2001, and a veteran volunteer, Loretta Chin, introduced her to the Chinese files. Most Thursdays, Nicola is there pulling pieces of history from boxes and making sure they’re accessible when someone in the present needs them.
She noted that one of the people who claimed credit for stirring up the anti-Chinese sentiment that led to the Exclusion Act was an Irishman and a recent immigrant himself. That would be Denis Kearney, a Bay Area labor leader who blamed the Chinese for the economic problems of white workers.
We ought to have learned something since then about using the law as a tool of discrimination. Maybe getting history out where people can see it will help us see our own time more clearly.