A project of the Center for Community Change

Reconciliation and Healing in Bellingham

Thanks to David Cahn, for sending us his latest op-ed from the Whatcom (County) Independent (posted below). If you’ve written an op-ed lately, send it to nwells@communitychange.org.

This article takes a look at the roots of anti-immigrant events and sentiments in his locale and in the US. Posing an interesting question, Do Lou Dobbs, the minutemen [and Tancredo and Romney for that matter] know their roots in the history of anti-immigrant movements in the US, Cahn asks us to look at the deeper roots of today’s immigration debate- a truly formidable task for any community.

His city, Bellingham, is striving to acknowledge the roots of anti-immigrant sentiment in their area by promoting a ‘Day of Healing and Reconciliation’- it would be great to hear if other towns have done similar actions– post your responses here.

The need for healing and reconcilliation
Guest Spot by David Cahn

David Cahn is an organizer with Community to Community Development and the grandson of immigrants. He conducts Immigration History 101 community workshops for any and all interested. He can be reached at davidncahn@gmail.com.

As today’s anti-immigrant movement is up in arms about migration across the U.S.-Mexico border as a threat to our nation, the anti-immigrant movement of one hundred years ago was similarly obsessed with the Pacific Coast.

One of the hallmark achievements of this movement was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was passed in an era of violent anti-Chinese riots that occurred up and down the coast, including our own community. A plaque along Harris Avenue in Fairhaven reminds us of this era. Marking the area where Chinese cannery workers were barred from the rest of town, it reads “Chinese deadline, no Chinese allowed beyond this point, 1878-1903.”
One anti-immigrant activist of the period wrote, “The Pacific Coast is the frontier of the white man’s world, the culmination of the westward immigration which is the white man’s whole history.”

In terms that sound strangely similar to, if not at least more honest than the nativist rhetoric of today, he goes on to write that it “will remain the frontier so long as we guard it as such; no longer. Unless it is maintained there, there is no other line at which it can be maintained without more effort than the American government and American civilization is able to sustain.”

I wonder if the Minutemen and Lou Dobbs types of today feel any sense of kinship with their historical predecessors or if they know about them at all. Regardless, it is important for us all to learn more about our community’s history.

This September 4 will be the one-hundred-year anniversary of a shameful local event. On this day in 1907, a mob of five hundred white workers gathered downtown to kick a community of Sikh and East Indian migrant workers out of the city limits.

Concerned these workers would crowd white labor out of the lumber mills, the growing mob rallied and went to work. The rioters moved through town, breaking windows, throwing rocks, indiscriminately beating people, overpowering a few police officers, and pulling men out of their workplaces and homes.

They eventually rounded up two hundred or so of the Indian immigrant workers in the basement of City Hall (now the Whatcom Museum of History and Art) to stay the night. Despite promises of protections from city officials, this group of 200 East Indian workers well understood that there was no protection for them in Bellingham and migrated up and down the Pacific coast looking for safer and saner living conditions.

To make sure this event is remembered, City of Bellingham and County officials are proclaiming Sept. 4 a “Day of Healing and Reconciliation.” I hope during this time our community takes the time to look at this riot not as an isolated incident but rather part of a larger historical trend.

After the East Indian workers fled town, hundreds of activists with the Asiatic Exclusion League traveled to Bellingham (which was home to an 800-person strong chapter already) to hold a mass meeting and demonstration in favor of further “Oriental exclusion laws.” The Bellingham Herald reported, “The league is not working to incite the laboring men to the shirt-sleeve method of expelling foreigners, but desires to have laws passed by the national congress restricting immigration of what it considers a menace to American labor.”

At the meeting, one League leader declared their “program is that every Asiatic must be excluded and we’re not going to quit till we get the whole cheese… to allow the Asiatic to become a fixture upon us is wrong both for them and for us. The proper thing to do is to stop the immigration of these undesirables right now, stop it right and stop it for all times.”

The League and the larger anti-immigrant movement would come to win a decisive victory with the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924. A decidedly racist form of legislation that for more than forty years discriminated against Southern and Eastern European migration and practically barred all immigration from any non-European countries. Or in other words, in less than twenty years, the overt racism, violence and illegal efforts at East Indian expulsion of the 1907 Bellingham riot eventually found legalized and strengthened expression through the U.S. legal system and federal government.

Speaking of “immigration reform” today, many folks see this law as nothing more than the continuation of the first Immigration Act passed by Congress in 1790 that restricted immigration and citizenship to “free white persons” of “good moral character.” For true healing and reconciliation we also need honesty.

Issues of race have always influenced U.S. immigration policy. As responsible community members we cannot continue to let anti-immigrant folks or government officials today claim that their efforts for border militarization and increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement have “nothing to do with race.”

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