Rahul Gupta has been adding extra tours of the old INS building in the neighborhood because of intensifying interest in immigration. He suggests we’re more a nation of multicultural stories than a nation of immigrants.

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Is this a nation of immigrants?

Rahul Gupta asked that question of a group of people clustered around him in a hallway of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) building in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District.

Gupta was leading a tour of the building on May 6, the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act was supposed to last 10 years, but the government kept renewing it until World War II, when our alliance with China made it awkward.

But that act, Gupta said, has colored America’s approach to immigration since.

“Immigration is about who gets to be here,” he said. “It’s about who gets to be American.”

Columnist Jerry Large takes a tour of the former U.S. Immigrant Station and Assay Office in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. (Jerry Large / The Seattle Times)

Periodically, America turns hostile toward immigrants, especially when the country faces difficult economic times, or when some Americans fear being overwhelmed by people who seem so different.

This is one of those moments, which may be why a chance to remember some immigration history drew more people than Gupta expected. He’s the director of education and tours for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. He expected around 30 people, but more than 100 signed up, and he had to add extra tours.

The four-story building we were walking through was used as an immigration station from 1931 to 2004. Now it provides space for artists, but it was built primarily to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Significant numbers of Chinese began coming to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, pushed outward by famine at home and pulled toward America by jobs and by the chance of getting rich in the gold fields of California. The labor was welcomed at first. The newcomers built railroads, worked in logging camps and did other dangerous, labor-intensive work.

But as the economy in the U.S. developed troubles, white workers feared the competition for jobs. Every evil you can think of was attributed to the Chinese, which stoked the anti-Chinese sentiment that led to the exclusion act.

In Seattle, hostility rose to the point that half the Chinese population fled the city, then, in February 1886, some white residents rioted to drive the rest of the Chinese people out. According to an account in historylink.org, the Chinese population of Seattle dropped from nearly 1,000 to a few dozen. In Tacoma, officials ran Chinese residents out of town the previous November, and Chinese people were under assault across the state.

When immigrants are demonized, and efforts are made to keep specific ones out, as is happening now, the rejoinder is often a plea for acceptance based on the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants.

Gupta reminds us that where we are standing was once Duwamish land.

Certainly, Gupta says, many people have chosen to come to the United States, but saying that we are a nation of immigrants leaves out people who came as refugees. It leaves out people who occupied the continent before there was an American nation, and people who were brought here against their will.

This is a nation of people who have many different stories to tell about how their families came to be here. Each group story and even each family within a given group has its own version of the larger story.

Gupta told me later that his mother and father came from separate parts of India to get an education in the U.S. They came in the 1960s and met at a university in Florida. Gupta was born in Cincinnati and grew up first in New Jersey, where the family had friends from many ethnic backgrounds, then Dallas, where the family was often bullied for being different, for being Hindu or for being too dark.

He learned how to throw a punch, but he also began thinking about America and its peoples. In school, Gupta said, “There wasn’t one history book that spoke to the experiences of any of my friends of color.” How would people learn what it is to be an American?

Gupta sees the museum galleries and the neighborhood outside as classrooms and himself as an educator trying to give people the context they need to see the world more clearly.

He’s especially proud that about two years ago the museum began partnering with schools and school districts to add to the stories students get from their textbooks.

The INS building has a second-floor courtyard, where detainees would get a little air. The walls are covered with the names of places of origin, such as China, but more recently El Salvador, Michoacan, Honduras, Vietnam.

People need to have their stories told and their existence acknowledged. We are a nation of many stories.