Lifting the lamp for AAPI New Jerseyans, 80 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act

December 6, 2023 6:55 am

Though the Chinese Exclusion Act has been repealed, we still have work to do when it comes to confronting the injustices it wrought. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Responding to a fundraising ad for the construction of the Statue of Liberty in 1885, Saum Song Bo remarked bitterly, “This country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese.”

No lamp would be lifted for the Chinese immigrants who had helped power America’s economic expansion or gave their lives building the railroads. Rather than acceptance or gratitude, these immigrants were met with vitriol, discrimination, and courts that turned a blind eye to anti-Chinese theft, violence, and lynching.

In 1882, the U.S. codified this racist sentiment with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which claimed that Chinese laborers were threats to the “good order” of this country and banned Chinese immigration to the United States.

In the years following, it paved the way for additional laws and policies that excluded other Asian groups, including Japanese, Korean, and Filipino immigrants. The message was clear: no matter how long they had been here, Asian immigrants would never be American. Only 80 years – a single lifespan – have passed since the repeal of this act. But its toxic legacy persists today.

We write this letter as a proud daughter of two Southeast Asian refugees and a transracially adopted Korean American. As two leading advocates at statewide immigrants rights organizations, we are both keenly aware that though repealed, the racist ideas that paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act still live on today. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are often stereotyped as a single monolith, an indistinguishable mass of “perpetual foreigners,” regardless of their tenure or journey to the United States. And while progress has been made, AAPIs continue to face exclusion and discrimination in the workplace, in schools, and in severe lack of representation in government and halls of power.

Today, one of every three AAPIs was born in the United States, and in New Jersey, we are the fastest growing racial group in the state, with an over 70% growth rate since the year 2000. Compared to their peers, AAPI immigrants are more likely to be limited English proficient, despite high rates of educational attainment. AAPI immigrants, like all immigrants, are our family members, neighbors, small business owners, helping professionals, and more, contributing to our state’s rich economy. But bias, discrimination, and race-based violence persist; in New Jersey, reported hate crimes have more than tripled in the last few years, rising from 267 reported incidents in 2020 to 726 in 2022.

Compounding their difficulties, New Jersey AAPIs of limited English proficiency are often excluded by lack of language assistance from accessing critical services such as bias incident reporting, support for victims of domestic violence, obtaining basic public health information, and applying for New Jersey’s landmark programs like “Cover All Kids,” free school breakfast and lunch, Anchor, pandemic relief, and so many more.

Fortunately, there are solutions that would advance the welfare of New Jersey’s 1.1 million AAPIs and combat the continued exclusion and erasure of our communities.

Interpretation and translation of rights and state services and communications, like the model offered through language access bill S2459/A3837, are a direct strike against the historical exclusion many immigrants face. Few states are as linguistically diverse as New Jersey, where one in three households speaks a language other than English at home. Yet far more states offer robust interpretation and translation services at government offices. It is imperative for all New Jerseyans to have access to critical information and services in the language in which they communicate. The inability of AAPI New Jerseyans to ask about, apply, or get live support when applying for public programs further isolates a community that already faces systemic and societal barriers to inclusion.

Similarly, data disaggregation, like the proposal in bill S2415/A3092, would provide visibility into the needs of diverse communities who are currently collapsed into a single racial category. Over 50 countries fall under the term “Asian,” the category currently used by state agencies for demographic data, making it easy for the needs of particular communities to be buried in overall averages. To take one example, while 54% of AAPIs have a bachelor’s degree or higher, disaggregated rates range from 75% for Taiwanese Americans to 15% for Bhutanese Americans. AAPI New Jerseyans, as well as Middle Eastern and North African communities currently categorized as ‘white,’ deserve visibility.

Although New Jersey has made tremendous strides in offering resources and protections for communities reporting bias, discrimination, and race-based violence, these incidents will persist for as long as society views immigrant groups as silent monoliths. Though the Chinese Exclusion Act has been repealed, we still have work to do when it comes to confronting the injustices it wrought. With sensible language access and data disaggregation policies, New Jersey can reclaim its rightful place next to other states that have recognized we are all stronger when we welcome and support our diverse communities.

New Jersey is the land of liberty. If Saum Song Bo could gaze at the statue that rests on our state’s shores today, eighty years after the Chinese Exclusion Act’s repeal, he would tell us: It is time to lift the lamp.


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Amber Reed
Amber Reed

Amber Reed is president of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of NJ (AAPI NJ).

Kat Phan
Kat Phan

Kat Phan is policy and research associate of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ).