Monday, July 8, 2019

A Puzzling Response

by Susan Zehnder, Director of Education

Recently, I presented the topic of immigration to second graders, and asked “who is an immigrant?” Ever since, I’ve been thinking about one response I heard. 

Required to study immigration by New York State, second-graders learn who  came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and some of the reasons why. Students easily identify the Statue of Liberty. They understand it was a gift to America from France, and was dedicated in 1886 as a sign of friendship between the two countries. Well over a hundred years old, the statue has been carefully restored three times. She is an important symbol of what America stands for, and continues to hold her torch high over New York's harbor.
Statue of Liberty's recently restored torch.
Nearby, other buildings of a similar age used to process newly arrived immigrants, now house the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration run by the National Park Service. Operating as a gateway to America and the possibility of a better life, Ellis Island processed over 12 million hopeful people from 1892 until it closed in 1954. Immigration is nothing new.
Both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can be seen in this photo from a NYC tourist website.
Immigration is in the news a lot these days. In the United States, the first restrictive federal immigration law was passed 144 years ago in 1875. Called the Page Act after Representative Horace F. Page, a Republican from California, it aimed to prohibit Chinese women entry to the United States. Up until then, immigrants from China were mostly men. Lured by the financial possibilities surrounding the 1848 California Gold Rush, the majority of these men borrowed money to make the trip. Working, they paid back that money plus interest.

However, what they earned was often not enough to bring over their wives or girlfriends. Lacking family life, prostitution, nothing new to the west, grew in this immigrant population. Congressman Page created The Page Act, saying he wanted to address the issue of prostitution and to focus on the plight of poor Chinese girls brought over as prostitutes or slaves. Today, speculation is the restrictions were to keep Chinese laborers from taking jobs that could go to white men, by depriving them of the chance to start families. 

To implement the Page Act, potential immigrant women were subjected to rigorous questioning first by the American consul in Hong Kong. Passing that, they would have to again answer the same questions just before sailing. These answers were carefully compared to their previous ones. Those that were approved, were then asked the same questions by Hong Kong’s harbor master of the British colonial government. Once on board the ship, the women were questioned again, and upon arriving, the women presented their photographs, health records and answered the same questions again. If anyone changed any answer or didn’t match their photo from before, they were returned to Hong Kong and seen as duplicitous.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted. This second immigration law suspended immigration of Chinese laborers to America for ten years; permitted those already in the US to remain in the country only after a temporary absence; and barred Chinese from naturalization, among other things.

There weren’t many Chinese in Chemung County at this time. In Elmira there were two Chinese launderers listed in the 1885 City Directory, with an additional three listed in 1896. Notes in our files indicate the number was “stable up to the 1920s.” 

In the immigration unit, the second graders read over copies of original documents to find clues about different characters who lived in our area. We use an advertisement from one of the laundry businesses listed in the Star-Gazette from September 2, 1914. 
Star-Gazette, September 2, 1914

This shows one business that was a successor to another, was open every day, and worked to provide the very best work. Through discussion, the students learn a little more of why hardworking people might have left their home countries and ventured to America. We look at documents on different immigrants who make up the complexity of our area.  
Just like in the early days as a nation, today America is a country of immigrants from countries all over the world. 

The answer that I heard when I asked the students “Who is an immigrant?” didn’t make sense until I thought about it. While I suspect he wouldn’t agree, it’s who the kids hear always talking about immigrants.

The puzzling answer I heard to who is an immigrant? The President.

Note: For more information on Chinese immigrants in Chemung County, see Rachel’s blogfrom August 13, 2012. It includes the story of Mr. Yee Lee, owner of the first Chinese laundry business in Elmira.

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