Immigration Interview on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives at College Park, MD.

Our new exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion focuses much on the question of immigration in America: who is allowed, who isn’t, how many people should come, and why. These issues are extremely apparent in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration into America, and required that all Chinese entering or re-entering the country had to prove their identity and eligibility or risk being denied entry. The Act was repealed in 1943, which also allowed Chinese in America to become naturalized citizens.

However, American immigration was still operating on the National Origins System (enacted in the 1924 Immigration Act), which set limits on immigration based on how many people of a particular origin were already in America. However, those quota were rarely fair, and favored northern Europeans. In 1943, just 105 people of Chinese origin were allowed each year, and other Asians were excluded altogether.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, removed all language pertaining to race or national origin from US immigration law. Celler argued for the “elimination from our laws of the fallacious belief that the place of birth or the racial origin of a human being determines the quality or the level of a man’s intellect, or his moral character, or his suitability for assimilation into our nation and our society.” Instead, it gave preference to potential immigrants with family members in America, or with desirable skills, which remains the basis of our immigration policy today. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill on October 3, 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Today, immigration remains an important topic of public discussion. The exhibit provides a chance to look back at attitudes, policies and laws that shaped American immigration from its very beginnings.

Signing of the Immigration Act, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.