WASHINGTON, Feb 19, 2011 (AFP) - More than a century after the United States shut its doors to Chinese immigrants, Asian American lawmakers are seeking an official apology that they hope will serve as a lesson for future generations.
Approved by Congress in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration by Chinese workers and their naturalization as US citizens, marking the first time the United States explicitly closed itself to a particular nationality.
Census figures show that more than 100,000 ethnic Chinese were living in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Many had been recruited to build the transcontinental railroad, but faced racism from white workers.
Representative Judy Chu, a Chinese American who took over this month as the new chair of the Asian American caucus in Congress, said that legislation offering an apology for the act would be a key priority.
Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 during World War II after Japan highlighted the law in propaganda questioning China's alliance with the United States.
But apology advocates note that the US government has never voiced regret. After the act's repeal, the United States still let in only 105 Chinese each year. The United States opened up to large-scale immigration by non-Europeans under a landmark 1965 law championed by then-senator Ted Kennedy.
Representative Mike Honda, the outgoing chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, called the anti-Chinese law "a shameful chapter in our country's long history of exclusion."
"The great thing about humanity is that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes," said Honda, who was interned as a child during World War II due to his Japanese ancestry.
"Chinese were used as cheap labor to do the most dangerous work laying the tracks of our transcontinental railroad to strengthen our nation's infrastructure, only to be persecuted when their labor was seen as competition when the dirtiest work was done."
Honda, like Chu a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party from California, said he saw "the same hatred" now in calls aimed at Mexicans for an end to US birthright citizenship.
"We must not vilify entire groups of people because it is politically expedient," Honda said.
But some advocates said they hoped to steer the debate clear of sensitive issues such as immigration and US-China relations, particularly with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.
"This is not about immigration. Certainly the US government has the right to set its policy. We are talking about how you treat people," said Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking the apology.
"We will make sure that this is not an apology to China. It has nothing to do at all with foreign relationships," he said.
Lin said an apology would mark closure and also encourage schools to devote more than cursory mentions to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
"We strongly believe that this needs to be in education so that future generations will learn this lesson and, hopefully, something like this will not happen again," he said.
Lin was flexible on the wording, saying he may accept a statement of "regret" if Congress balks at the word "apology." He also made clear that Chinese Americans were not seeking financial compensation.
In a landmark apology, President Ronald Reagan signed an act of Congress in 1988 regretting the wartime internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Survivors each received $20,000 and a letter of apology.
But such apologies are rare. Congress formally apologized to African Americans for slavery in 2008. In 1993, the United States apologized to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of their kingdom a century earlier.
Honda chaired the Asian American caucus for seven years, fighting for a range of priorities. He helped win funding to close educational gaps and to provide counseling for Asian Americans facing home foreclosure, as well as securing promises of greater diversity in the media and government hiring.
Under Honda, the caucus achieved a key goal sought for decades - winning compensation for Filipino veterans who fought for the United States during World War II.