We shouldn’t need historical contexts or counterparts for Donald Trump’s illegal and immoral Executive Orders on immigration and refugees to protest and resist these horrific steps. The countless unfolding, frustrating, tragic stories in the present—of the Iraqi translator who worked alongside US troops in his country but has now been denied a reunion with his wife and children; of the Syrian refugee family who had waited more than two years in a refugee camp and were less than a week away from resettling in Ohio when the orders went into effect; of permanent residents, holders of green cards, from affected nations still denied reentry into the United States—offer plenty of rationale for opposing these actions.
If we do look to the past, whether recent and directly relevant or more historic yet clearly parallel, we find no shortage of additional examples. For the former, there’s the striking fact that none of the Lost Boys of Sudan, those child refugees whose stories of loss and trauma, and then resettlement and success comprise, one of the most inspiring American communities of the last few decades, would be permitted into the United States under Trump’s order. Two of the Lost Boys—now men working to better their community and our nation—visited my older son’s 5th grade class this year, and left the kind of impression only genuine courage and heroism can inspire. If Trump had his way they’d never have been there, or here.
For the more historic yet clearly parallel kind of example, there’s the case of the St. Louis, the ship carrying German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis that was denied entry to the United States in June 1939. As that hyperlinked Twitter account has highlighted at potent and painful length, 254 of those refugees were later killed in the Holocaust, resulting in a list of precise, tangible, unnecessary tragedies and losses that lays bare the effects of such anti-refugee policies. In either a cruel coincidence or a sign of true malevolence, Trump signed his Executive Orders on Holocaust Remembrance Day, forcing an even more unavoidable reflection on this shameful moment in America’s history and how easily we might echo it if we’re not careful.
Those and many other historical contexts can inform and deepen our understanding of the present and its dangers. But I would point to one particularly under-remembered American figure and history, the inspiring yet tragic story of Yung Wing (1828-1912). At every stage, Yung’s 19th century Chinese American life featured pioneering cross-cultural achievements: becoming the first Chinese American college graduate when he completed Yale in 1854; working to end so-called «coolie» slave labor throughout the Western Hemisphere; volunteering for the Union Army during the Civil War; and founding the Chinese Educational Mission, a Hartford (CT) institution devoted to bringing Chinese young men to the United States and furthering this cross-cultural community.
Yung’s personal life and identity were similarly pioneering and cross-cultural: he became a naturalized US citizen in the 1850s, one of the first documented Chinese or Asian American citizens; and two decades later married Avon (CT)’s Mary Kellogg, with whom he had two sons, Morrison and Bartlett. But it was these personal triumphs that were threatened and destroyed most fully by the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1882 law that both culminated decades of anti-Chinese fears and violence and represented the first step in a subsequent century of evolving, discriminatory immigration laws and policies.
Just as Trump’s Executive Orders affect not only new arrivals but current American residents and communities, so too was the Chinese Exclusion Act overtly designed to impact and even destroy the existing Chinese American community. Yung’s citizenship was stripped, and when he traveled back to China to continue his work as a diplomat, he was denied readmission into the United States under the law’s bigoted pretenses. In a painfully blunt letter relying this decision to diplomat Charles Denby, Secretary of State John Sherman admitted that the exclusion «would on its face seem unjust and without warrant. … Nevertheless, … the department does not feel that it can properly recognize him as a citizen of the United States.»
This denial of Yung’s citizenship, and indeed of the fundamental truths of his half-century of inspiring and influential American life and work, profoundly affected his family and final decades of life. Deeply traumatized by their extended separation and by fears for Yung’s life, Mary passed away, leaving Morrison and Bartlett to be fostered out to family friends in New England. Yung officially returned to the United States only once, for Bartlett’s graduation from Yale; a brief moment of reunion and happiness after which he was required to leave the country once more. I’ve argued elsewhere that Yung did find a way to stay in the United States for at least some of the time before his 1912 death (the New York Times obituary noted that he died «at his home in Hartford»), but even if so he did so as an illegal immigrant, an outcast in the land he had made his home—and made much better and stronger—for nearly 60 years.
Exclusionary laws, policies, and attitudes don’t simply affect those immigrants and refugees seeking to join the American community, to extend one of our most defining histories. They also and just as crucially destroy existing American lives and communities, identities and histories that provide inspiring examples of our national ideals and can bond us together around those shared experiences and values. The Chinese Exclusion Act, like every one of our most exclusionary moments, potently and painfully affected Yung and countless other Americans in precisely those ways. If we don’t learn from his lesson, immediately and meaningfully—if we don’t resist and challenge and overturn an executive order that bars green card holders and other current Americans along with newly arrived refugees and immigrants—we are in grave danger of repeating his tragedy.