Back to Top

The Town that Immigration Built

This is Chinatown in Washington DC. Settlements like these sprung up around the US in the late 1800’s. Pioneering men from China left everything behind—property, employment, etc—for attractive offers to work in America. The idea was: get established, send for their families, and live the American dream like so many other immigrants.

That plan didn't work out too well. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which barred Chinese people from entering the country under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Behind the act was popular consensus among politicians that Chinese immigrants were to blame for (1) increasing unemployment rates, (2) a declining economy, and (3) cultural degradation.

The fact is that in 1882 Chinese only made up .002% of the US population.

Facing a difficult choice many Chinese stuck with their original plan and paid smugglers to bring their families into the US. Not all of the smugglers were trustworthy—some wives and daughters were stolen and sold into slavery. The Chinese exclusion act sparked the beginning of a global crisis, the underground trafficking of sex workers, that continues to this day. The act also resulted in Chinese people needing to exclude themselves somewhat from the rest of American society.  

Three generations later government recognized the failures of the exclusion act. Through various acts of congress from 1943 through the 1950’s the remaining undocumented Chinese residents were given amnesty and the opportunity for citizenship.

The US has actually had quite a few immigration amnesties in its history. Some call it "rewarding lawbreakers" but that doesn't tell the whole story. All the way back to the 1882 Chinese exclusion act, the US continuously fails to enact an immigration policy that truly works for low skilled workers and their families—instead we welcome momentarily then restrict based on cultural and economic myths. (The US currently offers only 5,000 low skilled worker visas per year.) Because the laws are overly restrictive and because we respect the employment needs of farms and businesses we also fail at consistent enforcement, wreaking havoc on the lives of children and families.   

Immigration policy is as inhumane now as it was in 1882.   

This is why, in 2014, 70% of U.S. farm employees are undocumented. This is why we keep needing amnesty. This is why human trafficking can flourish. This is why we need real reform.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are widely accepted bipartisan proposals for reform. The Senate even passed a bill. One day our children will have the historical perspective to see the unmistakable injustice of the present immigration system. My hope is they will also say their parents were the ones who supported reform and made it right.



Social Security Administration Program Operations Manual GN 00302.970

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors.

Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings: All Roads Lead to America. Zhang, Sheldon.

Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Andrew Gyory

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.