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Home / Articles / Today / National Today /  Chinese-Americans split on immigration policy
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Monday, October 4,2010

Chinese-Americans split on immigration policy

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

ANGEL ISLAND, Calif. — As he sailed on a ferry to Angel Island State Park, clad in the hooded brown robe of a Franciscan friar, the Rev. Franklin Fong imagined his ancestors who landed on the island about 80 years ago.

"It takes every generation of native-born folks to recognize, you know, there's something to learn from our own history," Fong said. "Because if we don't know our history, we're destined to repeat it."

The friar at Oakland's St. Elizabeth Catholic Church was one of about 350 people, nearly all of them Chinese-Americans, who took a pilgrimage recently to the island's old immigration station. They prayed, shared stories and sought to make connections between the plight of Asian immigrants who faced discrimination a century ago and the challenges faced by newcomers today.

"I think the challenges are very similar," Fong said. "Obviously, the time is different. The circumstances are different. The nations providing the immigrants are different, but in many ways we have the same fears, the same anxieties about why these people are coming and what are we going to do about them."

Opened in 1910 and closed in 1940, the Angel Island station is remembered as a detention center more than as a welcoming gateway to America. Many Asian ship passengers, subject to strict exclusionary laws from 1882 until the mid-20th century, were interrogated and jailed for weeks or months once they reached the island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Immigration laws of the time allowed just a few Chinese merchants into the country, but many Chinese laborers tried to come anyway. Some purchased new identities that would improve their chances of getting through the island.

Those who made it through faced harsh rhetoric as local newspapers and political groups railed against them, blaming them for various social and economic problems.

The organizers of the pilgrimage see parallels between the inflamed passions over Asians a century ago and the political climate today for new immigrants.

"The rhetoric is curiously the same to me," said the Rev. Emily Lin, of the Chinese Community United Methodist Church, which has been in Oakland's Chinatown for 123 years. "It's not so much the Chinese anymore. Now it's sort of targeting Mexicans and Latin Americans."

You could lift some of today's anti-immigrant signs and slogans, she said, from those targeting Chinese a century ago.

Some Chinese-Americans in the Bay Area think the comparison is unfair.

"I don't think it has anything to do with race," said Union City accountant Bondy Ng, speaking of today's immigration policies and debates. "I know there was discrimination before, in the past. I'm glad that it's over."

Ng joined the Golden Gate Minutemen this year, adding herself to the ranks of a movement determined to stop illegal crossings of the U.S. border.

"I understand not everybody can come in, but then again, life is not fair," Ng said. "We should continue welcoming immigrants. We just have to do it smart."

Few polls have asked Chinese-Americans what they think about contemporary immigration controversies, but those that do find a community that is split. Chinese-American registered voters in California, for example, are closely divided about Arizona's new law, SB1070, that sought to crack down on illegal immigration by giving police in Arizona the right to ask people for documents if they suspect they might be in the country illegally. About 48 percent of Chinese-American voters approved of the law and 41 percent disapproved, according to a California Field Poll taken in July.

About 54 percent of Chinese-American voters in California said the overall effect of illegal immigrants on the state was unfavorable. Only 29 percent had a favorable opinion about the impact of illegal immigrants.

"Many Chinese-Americans are struggling, as well," said Yeh Ling-Ling of the Orinda-based Alliance for a Sustainable USA, which advocates a moratorium on immigration. "They cannot find work, especially the younger generation. They have kids out of college who cannot find work."

Yeh, who was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, said that leads to frustration about the influx of low-skilled immigrants, including about 120,000 illegal immigrants from China and many more from Latin America.

The debate today is not comparable, she said, with what happened many decades ago.

"Now, there are so many circumstances that warrant some sort of moratorium," Yeh said. "It's not as much of a labor-based economy. It's a high-tech economy, which requires less work."

———

(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at http://www.contracostatimes.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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