My dad, the illegal alien

April 24, 2006|By STELLA DONG

My father had a deep dark secret, which nobody knew except the 300,000 other Chinese who had emigrated to the United States between 1882 and 1943. Their shared secret was that they were all "paper sons."

"Paper son" was a code phrase meaning that they were all illegal immigrants to the United States. Belying Emma Lazarus' welcome to all who are "yearning to breathe free," the Chinese were prohibited from entering the country. The Exclusion Act was inspired by the purest racism in our checkered history. But my father, as so many other "wily Orientals," arrived in Seattle armed with a document declaring him to be a son of American citizens born in China. Thus, the phrase "paper son."

More often than not, the ruse succeeded. Which is why I - and the descendants of an estimated 90 percent of the Chinese residing in the United States before the Exclusion Act's repeal in 1943 - revere our forebears' ingenuity and determination to make their way to the place they called "Golden Mountain." Ancestor worship might be considered superstition to white America, but we sure do worship our ancestors' cunning for our being born Americans.

Circumventing the Exclusion Act shows that exclusionary legislation, regardless of how strict - in the Chinese phrase "laws as harsh as tigers" - cannot stop resourceful outsiders from trying their best to become insiders.

Of course, America needs control over who enters its borders and who becomes a citizen. The danger - now as much as in the late 19th century - is to allow racial nativism to shut out non-whites and non-Europeans.

The high point in immigration laws was the Lyndon B. Johnson administration's landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which ushered unprecedented numbers of non-Caucasians into our less-than-lily-white society. For the past 20 years, though, the inevitable pendulum has been swinging in the opposite direction.

The vast majority of America's illegal immigrants are Latinos. So is it any coincidence that the language and circumstances of the current debate over immigration policy echoes the anti-Chinese babble that took place 114 years earlier?

Those adamantly opposing the acceptance of economic and political reality are hardly all demagogues or racists. They sincerely believe that the willingness of Latin Americans to work for low wages hurts the economy by driving down wages and depriving Americans of jobs.

Like Latino illegals, Chinese laborers had the advantage of being hard workers who never complained about their working conditions. Labor leaders and politicians' skillful exploitation of working-class Americans' fear of losing their jobs to the "parasites from China," as a California agitator said in the 1870s, led in fact to the Exclusion Act's speedy passage.

An objection to Latino and Chinese immigration is that both groups are supposedly unable to fervently pledge allegiance to the United States. Both have been characterized as temporary residents in America as they came or have come to earn money to be sent back to their families.

The best possible immigration bill that could emerge from Congress would offer America's 11 million undocumented workers a legal path to citizenship - not amnesty, as opponents have characterized a provision in the Senate version of the legislation, but a program that requires illegals to earn their citizenship.

My father, if he were still alive and not the modest man he was, could tell the Senate a thing or two about the sacrifice and struggle involved in earning the right to call himself an American.

Yes, he broke a law by coming to America with false papers. But it does not necessarily follow - as today's exclusionists argue - that he is a criminal as a result. In fact, my father, like nearly all of his fellow "paper sons," was an exemplary citizen and patriot.

He paid his taxes every year on time, voted in every election and was intensely proud that he could participate in American life. In fact, he once reprimanded me for putting a stamp with the United States on its face upside-down on an envelope.

The worst possible immigration bill would be one with the more extreme features of the House version - in particular, the provision that would brand all undocumented workers as felons. Such draconian legislation would do nothing but drive illegals further into insecure pockets of an underground economy and ratchet up the fear quotient in immigrant communities.

Paper sons like my father knew a lot about living with fear. I don't remember how old I was when Dad told me that Dong was not our real last name, but the gravity in his voice - and something that flickered across his face - impressed upon me the necessity of keeping mum about my father's secret.

The fear that paper sons like my father felt about having their secrets revealed was a corrosive force that operated on many levels: It kept an entire community quiet and unwilling to speak up or to demand redress for abuses. Tragically, too, children of paper sons and daughters unconsciously absorbed their parents' attitudes and feelings of self-worth so that the trauma of feeling illegitimate often passed on to the next generation.

So I, as the daughter of an illegal immigrant, can only pray that one day a new generation will be spared the trauma of illegality and will take its place among the millions of this wondrous diverse population.

Stella Dong, who lives in New York City, is the author of "Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City." Her e-mail is

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