On the week of the disappointing coincidence of the Brexit vote and the Supreme Court decision to block DACA, I happened to be performing my one-man show on Asian American history in New York City.
The show has some laughs mixed in with the tragedy of history. But suddenly, with the news, the show is relevant again.
Asian Americans know all about exclusion in immigration.
And it seems like the world is heading down that path again.
My show focuses on the experience of Filipinos to America in the 1920s—I call it the “Short History of the American Filipino.” It tells the tale of my father, who was a baby of American Imperialism, born in the Philippines in 1906.
That circumstance placed my father in a unique status. He wasn’t an American nor was he a U.S. citizen. He was called an American National.
That sounded better than “colonized.” And he wasn’t a “colonial” like Alexander Hamilton.
But my father had the ability to come freely to America, which he did at age 22. Just in time for the Great Depression.
Tens of thousands of Filipinos arrived and took whatever jobs were available. They weren’t slaves, just cheap labor. Many took menial jobs in service trades and as agricultural workers in the fields of California.
But their presence upset the white male population, which triggered acts of discrimination and violent anti-Filipino demonstrations that resulted in lynchings and murders.
It was the politics of fear in action.
Politicians responded to the lawlessness by pandering to the mob and to the idea of ethnic purity.
Congress passed the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which really could have been called the Filipino Exclusion Act.
It changed Filipinos from American Nationals back into Filipino Nationals, established a deportation process, and blocked any further immigration.
From thousands per year, fewer than 50 were allowed entry afterward.
So when the news hit last week, it just seemed like we were back to the 1930s again, when xenophobia was all the rage.
Only this time, the feeling’s global.
A majority in Britain don’t want to deal with the costly problems of immigration and unity and want to rebuild their economic walls.
And now you might as well dump the Great from Great Britain, as the disassembly begins.
In the United States, the high court can’t find justice in educating 11 million undocumented, who, by virtue of being in this country, are essentially American.
What do we fear? Smart, educated people?
President Obama tried to show leadership in 2014 with his Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs.
But with the SCOTUS block of the president’s plan, now what happens to the hopes of millions of workers and families in America?
DACA 1 is still available, and some families that have not applied for that are eligible.
But DACA 2, the expansion, is on hold, as is the relief for parents who were hoping for the new DAPA.
In the interim, let’s hope leadership in higher ed stays true to its mission—education.
Colleges and universities provide light when politicians flail in the dark. Educators’ jobs aren’t to police or define immigration policy. Knowledge doesn’t require a green card.
So as we wait for what’s next from our leaders, let’s learn from Asian American history.
The exclusion of Filipinos through the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, as well as the exclusion of the Japanese that resulted in the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” and before that the Chinese Exclusion Act, were all ill-advised discriminatory responses that didn’t work short-term or long-term.
The politics of fear is a politics of ignorance. It doesn’t work.
We might be able to stall and put off the future by blocking off immigration and all it does. But we know that shutting it all down doesn’t work.
Once the flow has started, history shows you can’t reverse the momentum of diversity.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He blogs at http://www.aaldef.org/blog