It has been a month since the Atlanta shooting where a white man bought a gun that morning, drove across town, barged into three Asian American-owned spas, and killed eight people, including six Asian American women.

The six Asian American women were not dead because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were where they were supposed to be – at their workplace, making a living to support their families. My grief for these women, and many others who have been victimized by anti-Asian violence over the past year, was briefly suspended when I saw the video of “kung fu” grandma who used a fragment of a two-by-four to whack the white man who punched her in the eyes in San Francisco. But my anguish deepened as another video popped up showing an Asian American woman being violently kicked down and repeatedly stomped upon on a New York city street in broad daylight. The attack that was captured on closed circuit television also showed two men going about their affairs inside the building as the beating happened just outside their doorsteps. Then a third man emerged on screen to close the door on the injured woman lying outside on the sidewalk struggling to get up.

During the year since March 2020 when Donald Trump started calling the COVID 19 “the Chinese Virus,” nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate and violent incidents have been reported, according to the non-profit Stop AAPI Hate. President Trump may not have started anti-Asian violence, he did misuse his bully pulpit to fan the hate. His hateful words led to the recent spate of violence and killings of Asian Americans.

Anti-Asian violence started almost at the same time as the arrival of the first group of Chinese laborers in California, around 1848, during the gold rush. (Asians had been in America before there was the United States of America. The first group of Filipinos arrived in Morro Bay of Northern California in 1587.) Robberies and killings of Chinese miners were commonplace. Such violence was sanctioned with impunity by the state. In the 1854 California case, People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction of the white man who shot and killed a Chinese miner from behind by finding testimonies of Chinese witnesses inadmissible. In rendering the decision, Chief Justice Murray created the enduring caricature of Chinese as the perpetual foreigners who could not assimilate and were unfit to enjoy all the rights of citizenship.

Despite the significant contribution of Chinese laborers in completing the transcontinental railroad, the California state legislature and its Congressional representatives intensified advocacy for anti-Chinese laws. The first anti-Chinese immigrant law came in 1875 in the passage of the Page Act that ostensibly aimed to prevent entry of prostitutes, but in reality, was to bar wives of Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. The Page Act rendered the Chinese immigrant community a bachelor society where Chinese men could not build families.

The Page Act was followed by more anti-Chinese immigration laws starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that was extended for two ten-year periods until it became permanent in 1904. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese from coming to the United States and denied Chinese immigrants  American citizenship. The 1888 revision of the Chinese Exclusion Act cancelled the certificate of identity that Chinese immigrants had relied on for re-entry after a visit home, stranding tens of thousands Chinese immigrants overseas. Chinese exclusion would later expand to exclude other Asians until the door for Asian immigration was completely shut in 1924 with the passage of the first Immigration and Nationality Act that officially racialized immigration to the United States.

By the time Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent had been rounded up and put in concentration camps, living in horse stalls with only what they could carry. Their homes, their farms, their stores and all their properties either were sold for pennies or were taken outright from them. The Alien Land Acts that were in force in many western states in the 19th and 20th Centuries had meant that Japanese immigrants who were barred from becoming American citizens could not hold property under their names. Over time they ended up losing their properties to the white friends or white neighbors who agreed to lend their names for these contracts and property deeds.

Chinese immigrants were finally able to become American citizens in 1943 when Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and allowed a quota of 105 Chinese to immigrate per year. Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become citizens until 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 was overhauled. It was not until 1965 when Asians could immigrate to the United States on almost equal footing as those from the western hemisphere. Despite the first group of Asians immigrating to the United States 173 years ago, the Asian American community remains a largely immigrant one because of anti-Asian immigration laws that spanned almost a century.

During that same century, Chinese immigrants built communities known as Chinatowns around the country to provide mutual assistance, and to guard against discrimination and assault from the mainstream society. Many of these communities did not survive erasure.

  • 1868 – During the “Driving Out” or “Yellow Peril” period, 40,000 miners of Chinese ancestry were forcibly expelled from California.
  • 1871 – Race riot and massacre in Los Angeles Chinatown resulted in 20 Chinese men lynched or burned alive by mobs of white men, four men were crucified spread-eagle and then executed with knife and gun. The first Chinatown of Los Angeles was wiped out.
  • 1877 – Three days of race riots in San Francisco Chinatown claimed four lives and destroyed $100,000 worth of property of Chinese immigrants, including 20 laundries.
  • 1879 – The State of California rewrote its constitution declaring that the Chinese people were “dangerous to the well-being of the State” and delegating “all necessary power” to towns and cities “for the removal of Chinese.”
  • 1880 – Bloody riot in Denver Chinatown started as drunken brawl between some intoxicated white men and two Chinese men led to the hanging of one Chinese man, the brutal beating of numerous others and the destruction of all Chinese properties.
  • 1885 – In Tacoma, Washington, vigilantes led by the Mayor raided the Chinese-owned stores, loaded up the Chinese residents (Chinese women with bound feet who could not walk were thrown into carts) and forced them out of the city. The Chinese immigrants walked the 140 miles along the railroad track built by Chinese laborers decades earlier to reach Portland, Oregon.
  • 1885 – In Rock Springs, Wyoming, twenty-eight Chinese men were burned alive, and their bodies mutilated by local townspeople.
  • 1886 – In Seattle, Washington, labor leaders rounded up 500 Chinese residents remaining in Chinatown and expelled them from Seattle.
  • 1887 – In Snake River, Oregon, a gang of at least four hundred white men robbed, murdered, and mutilated thirty-one Chinese miners in the Hell’s Kitchen Canyon region of Snake River. Three men were tried but none was convicted. The Snake River Massacre was not revealed until 1995.
  • 1906 – The Chinatown in Santa Ana, California was burned down by order of the City Council.
  • 1907 – As South Asians began arriving in the United States in larger numbers, race riots expanded from anti-Chinese to anti-Asian. Hundreds of white men affiliated with the Asiatic Exclusion League attacked the homes of South Asians in Bellingham, Washington, driving 125, mostly Sikhs, out of town. Similar riots took place two months later in nearby Everett, Washington.

The list continues. The law that prohibited Chinese from testifying against whites was not repealed until 1955.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sparked the enduring quest for racial and gender liberation. With it, the view toward Asian Americans also morphed from “yellow peril” to “model minority.” Being labelled “model minority” has led some Asian Americans to believe that they are protected from anti-immigrant attacks because they are the “good immigrants.” As State Representative Gene Wu pointed out at a “Stop Asian Hate” vigil last month, being called model minority does not shield Asian Americans from violence, the violence has not happened until recently “it’s just because your number was not up yet.”

The yearlong and continuing spate of Anti-Asian violence highlights the importance of allyship – to show up and speak out when others are oppressed, mistreated, discriminated against, attacked, or killed because of their skin color, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, disability, national origin, race, age, religious beliefs and practices. The fight for immigrant justice is a fight for racial justice. It is a struggle to correct a racialized immigration system that continues to discriminate along racial lines unabated.

Today is the 55th day of the Biden-Harris Administration, and we are already hearing acrimonious accusations from Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, charging the Administration for instigating migrant surge across the southern border. Instead of taking responsibility for his epic failure to protect and prepare Texans from the post-Valentine’s Day winter storms that put hundreds of thousands of Texans in the frigid cold with no electricity and, in many cases, no running water for days, Governor Abbott opted to divert attention by lifting the face-covering mandate and allowing business to operate at 100% capacity. His political choice could put Texas at risk of another COVID-19 surge, and he is already preparing a scapegoat: aiming at President Biden for rectifying the inhumane immigration policies of the past four years.

As he promised on the campaign trail, President Biden signed seven immigration-related executive orders and proclamations on day one of his administration to put humanity and dignity back in our immigration system. One of the Executive Orders ended the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Officially put in place in January 2019, the MPP policy pushed asylum seekers from primarily Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico to await their court date, which could be years into the future. Migrants, including families with young children, were forced to live in squalid and unsafe encampments across the border where cartel, kidnappers, and traffickers preyed on them. Many of the migrants had moved elsewhere in Mexico or returned to their home country, only around 10,000 remained in the border encampments out of the total of 26,000 who have active immigration cases under the MPP program when President Biden ended it on January 20, 2021.

Within a month of President Biden’s inauguration, on February 19, 2021, the U.S. government processed the first group of twenty-five asylum seekers at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego. Dozens of legal and social service volunteers spanned across the Mexico and San Diego border at the crack of dawn to explain the process to the migrants and assist those who made it across to the U.S. Processing at the Matamoros encampment across from Brownsville took place the following week. Teams of lawyers and volunteers who have built trust with the residents of the encampment over the years assisted the several hundred migrants to be processed by the Customs and Border Protection to ensure that they have proper documents needed for onward travel and that no one was accidentally skipped over. All migrants must test negative of COVID-19 prior to entering the U.S. For the migrants who have been stuck in Matamoros for more than two years, February 25, 2021 marked the triumph of humanity – they had endured unfathomable odds to make it across to the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims.

Since January 2021, there have been more unaccompanied children, individual migrants and family units coming to the U.S. from the southern border as compared to last year. Some of them might have been repelled from the U.S. last year under the emergency public health order of the Trump Administration. Detaining asylum seekers, separating children from their families, building border walls and harsh immigration policies have not stopped and will not stop desperate people from fleeing violence and persecution. Until we address the root causes of migration, the flow of humanity across the southern border will continue. President Biden is taking the crucial first step in developing a plan to shore up civil society in sending countries and establishing a refugee process system closer to home so that migrants do not have to make the dangerous journey to the U.S.

Our border communities have been shouldering the load of caring for the migrants in the past few years; it is time that the Houston community step up to the plate to share the burden. At HILSC, we have been reaching out to the grassroots and faith communities to organize Team Houston Welcoming to support migrants coming to or passing through Houston. Your support will help us address their immediate social needs and legal needs in the near term.

At around 10:48 a.m. Central Time on January 20, 2021, America turned a page. The United States inaugurated our first Madam Vice President, Kamala Harris, who was sworn in by the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Madam Vice President Harris is the first Black and first Indian American to hold that office in the 245-year history of this nation. She is also the daughter of two immigrants – mother from India, father from Jamaica – who came to the United States to pursue higher education and went on to become scientist and professor. That morning, America also witnessed the peaceful transition of power from one administration to another, which almost might not happen had the insurgents who caused the deadly riot storming the Capitol had their way. The four years of cruel and chaotic Trump Administration finally ended.

American turned a page on this day because President Biden unequivocally named white supremacy as a challenge that we must confront and defeat. He also declared “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” He gave meaning to his words by making his first executive act on Day One the signing of the “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” He did not stop there. He proceeded to sign seven proclamations and executive orders that protect immigrant rights. He revoked Trump’s Muslim and African ban that had separated thousands of families; he revoked Trump’s interior immigration enforcement policies that had terrorized immigrant communities throughout the past four years; he declared that question of citizenship has no place in decennial Census counts; he stopped the construction of the border wall; he extended immigration protection for Liberians to allow them time to apply for lawful permanent residency; and he preserved and fortified immigration protection for DREAMers, protecting more than 200,000 immigrants, majority of whom people of color, who came to the U.S. as children. He also directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end new enrollment in the “Remain in Mexico” program and to begin releasing immigrants detained in ICE detention. Little noticed is that DHS did not use the term “aliens” in either memoranda but refer to them as “non-citizens.”

For immigrant advocates who had toiled exhaustingly on the defensive over the past four years to combat the Trump Administration’s racist, xenophobic, cruel, and inhumane immigration policies that separated children from their families, jailed immigrants to enrich private industrial complex, expelled asylum-seekers to deadly border camps, denied immigrants due process, encouraged administrative practice of random acts of cruelty, the Biden Administration finally allows us to take a breath. In the Biden Immigration Plan, there is a pathway to citizenship for 11 million long-term residents who are without lawful immigration status, reinstatement of prosecutorial discretion, action to promote family unity by reducing backlog, removing the unlawful presence three- and ten-year bars, and give asylum-seekers more time to file for asylum.

It is about time that the U.S. ends the more than century-old racist immigration policy and moves to adopt one that honors and treats immigrants with dignity. The Biden Plan provides the beginning of this possibility.