Get out of my country has been our policy for 135 years

  • Since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, America has had a color line for immigration. It’s not new.

  • The U.S. also has denied citizenship and other privileges to many immigrant groups based on race.
  • This policy reached its nadir with Japanese internment camps in World War II. Many of these internment sites are being restored and are worth visiting.

Two anniversaries are weighing heavily on HISTORY IS POWER.

One year ago today, a white male walked into a bar in suburban Kansas City, yelled, “Get out of my country!” at two South Asian men, then began shooting.

Killed was Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer at Garmin, whose U.S. headquarters are just down the road from where the shooting occurred. Injured were Alok Madasani, who also worked at Garmin, and a third man, Ian Grillot, who stepped into the line of fire when he saw what was happening.

As a runner who wears two Garmin devices, I’m dedicating today’s run to the memory of this terrible incident.

UPDATE: Diane and I, along with our grandson Alex, joined a peace march in Olathe to honor the memory of Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

As an American, I’ve been doing some work on the origins of this idea, “Get out of my country.”

From the news media you might get the impression that racial profiling of immigrants is a fairly recent development. The reality is that the U.S. has had an immigrant color line for most of its history.

In the 1860s, Chinese immigrants who helped build our railroads were systematically terrorized by white mobs on the West Coast, while local officials stood by. Thousands were killed or burned out of their homes. This did not stem the tide of migration, however, so in 1882 Congress blocked the path to citizenship for Americans of Chinese descent.

By 1905 the mayor of San Francisco was declaring Japanese immigrants to be an even greater threat than the Chinese. The city started segregating schools the following year. In 1924, the Chinese Exclusion Act was expanded to deny citizenship to those of Japanese ancestry.

And that brings us to the other anniversary — this week in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Western Defense Command to involuntarily remove U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry living in an “exclusion zone” that was basically the entire West Coast.

Roosevelt’s order maintained that “successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material.” Yet no similar order was issued for residents of German or Italian ancestry — because by then racial profiling had been part of immigration policy for 60 years.

FDR was under pressure from white groups to do something about the West Coast Japanese. Leading the charge were California agricultural interests who were being out-farmed by these resourceful immigrants.

Years later, declassified documents revealed that three different intelligence arms of the government, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, had conducted thousands of home searches and interviews of Japanese Americans in the weeks after Pearl Harbor — and turned up nothing. All three reports urged the President not to inter these upstanding citizens. Hoover called such an action “utterly unwarranted.” But FDR signed the order anyway.

Overnight the net worth of the West Coast Japanese was wiped out, as families often sold all their possessions at huge discounts before being shipped off to camps. Anything left behind was likely confiscated or stolen by the time they returned four years later. George Takei’s family, and countless others, wound up destitute.

Not until 1976 did President Ford rescind EO 9066. Later presidents signed formal apologies and Congress passed a reparations bill.

More recently, President George W. Bush enabled up to $35 million in matching grants so the descendants of the 110,000 Japanese internees could turn the old internment camps into interpretive sites.

Diane and I plan to visit as many of these restored internment sites as we can. We’ve already been to, and highly recommend, Manzanar National Historic Site in California.

Our current president signed an executive order last year to curtail Muslim immigration. In 2016, some 30 governors told families fleeing the violence in Syria that they weren’t welcome in their states.

“Get out” may be a policy that makes short-term economic sense, but the public debate has never been about economics. It has always, always been predicated on emotions that were later regretted, and arguments later disproven.

And running through all our immigration debates is the color line. We even acknowledged racial profiling in earlier times, back when it was acceptable to promote white supremacy.

Now we use “public safety” or some other rhetorical dodge to tell immigrants like this Syrian refugee girl to either get out or stay out.

Imagine if we told these immigrants of color the same thing that we tell Europeans coming to our shores: “We’re not going make it easy for you to achieve your dreams here — but you’re welcome to try.”

Dig deeper

Albert Marrin is a multiple National Book Award finalist for his nonfiction books for young readers. His works are better than most histories aimed at grownups, and Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II (library) is one of his best. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, first published in 1973, is a classic.

Using the app Clio — it’s like TripAdvisor for history nerds — I created a roadmap for all the Japanese internment and processing sites, most of which have been or are undergoing renovations and interpretation.

Srinu, Alok, and Ian were shot at 7:15 p.m. Eastern time, February 22, 2017, if you want to take a moment. Srinu’s widow has started a group for immigrants called Forever Welcome that’s sponsoring a peace walk at Garmin headquarters on March 9.

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