Two weeks ago, the public learned of the heartbreaking story of 7 year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, who died in the custody of the US Border Patrol. More tragic news followed when 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez also died in its custody on Christmas Eve. Both of them had traveled with parents from Guatemala, seeking the safety and hope for a better life that comes with asylum.
As the leader of a community organization that supports recent immigrant families, I have been deeply affected by the deaths of these innocent young children. To give people who are seeking asylum the best chance of success and happiness, we must ensure that families remain cohesive and strong throughout the challenges of migration.
Family unity has not been a priority for this administration; instead, the White House has prioritized the politicization of asylum. In May, the public learned of the administration’s horrifying tactics of separating children from their parents at the southern border, in an attempt to send a clear message to migrants that they are unwelcome. They claim to have a comprehensive policy for caring for families who enter, but the implementation of these processes has obviously not prioritized the well-being of the most vulnerable. Even though the Trump administration announced an end to its family separation policy in June, dozens of immigrant children have been separated from their families since then.
While the ire and hatred of President Trump is directed at the southern border, the headlines are sounding alarm bells in the Chinese-American community in Greater Boston. That’s because the role that politics and rhetoric play in shaping the treatment of immigrant communities is not abstract to us at all: The first discriminatory immigration law in this country’s history was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants from entering the country explicitly because of their race.
The result of that law was that the number of Chinese immigrants in this country dropped from more than 100,000 in 1880 to about 60,000 by 1920. Chinese laborers were brutally robbed, beaten, and killed by nativist mobs that faced no consequences. During this period, a political activist named Denis Kearney implored a cheering audience on the Boston Common, “By the earth and all its inhabitants, and by hell beneath us, the Chinese must go. . . . They are filthy. By not employing them, you can drive them from the country.”
The humiliation of Chinese immigrants knew no bounds. Chinese women were classified as prostitutes and thus not allowed into the country, ensuring that Chinese communities would be made up of mostly single men, with little of the vibrancy that makes neighborhoods vital and none of the intergenerational support that is central to the well-being of many families, especially in Asian communities. Then, as now, the hard-liners targeted families as a way to send a message to a specific community that they were unwelcome.
On Dec. 17, we observed the 75th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which occurred in 1943, when China became an ally in World War II. In the past several years, both chambers of US Congress formally apologized for the treatment of Chinese immigrants during this period; Senator Dianne Feinstein pledged that “this shameful part of our history must not be forgotten.”
At work, my organization provides a broad range of services that help keep immigrant families together and intact, because we understand the trauma of separation. We recognize that parents will not excel in their workplace and community if their children are not living in a safe and stable environment. We recognize that children are at much greater risk in their social-emotional development if they cannot build strong bonds with loving parents and other caring adults from their earliest days. The work of protecting the well-being of our families is complicated, difficult, and draining; it can require the special commitment and dedication of well-trained and experienced staff.
Still, at its most basic level, it simply requires a belief that all people, no matter their status, should be treated humanely.
As Americans, we purport to believe that people of any race, origin, or heritage should have equal opportunity. Now is the time for our elected leaders and all people of good faith and conscience to ensure we truly live and embrace this belief. The president must immediately put an end to the inhumane treatment of immigrant families simply seeking a better life for their children; we as dutiful Americans must demand that his administration do so; and our newly formed Congress must hold this administration accountable to those demands.
We are a nation of immigrants, and even if our political leaders choose not to believe it, our humanity, and warm embrace of families’ journeys to get here, is what has made America great, and is what will make America great again.
Giles Li is executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.