A Civil Rights History: Asian Americans

by Andrea Faville

Asian immigrants began to arrive on American shores in the mid-1800s. At first they were welcomed. Their cheap labor made them ideal employees in Hawaii’s sugarcane fields and the Midwest’s railroad projects. Many also settled in California following the Gold Rush of 1849.

But during the 1870s and ’80s the tide of immigrants swelled to the hundreds of thousands. The influx fueled anti-immigrant sentiments. Rioters in California and Wyoming accused Chinese immigrants of stealing jobs. Western cities created ordinances segregating Asians and whites; some even tried to expel Japanese and Chinese Americans. The federal government passed laws that ended Chinese and Japanese immigration. Asian immigrants could not become United States citizens or purchase land.

In the 1930s, the United States’ relations with Japan deteriorated as the Japanese government aligned itself with Nazi Germany. Treatment of Japanese Americans worsened.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, spurred widespread fear of and backlash against Japanese Americans, particularly along the U.S. coasts. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066 authorizing extraordinary government action against a group of citizens: 120,000 Japanese Americans — some of them second- and third-generation citizens — were rounded up and removed from their homes. They were forced to sell their possessions and leave their jobs. They were shipped to internment camps, isolated from the rest of America.

While their families lived behind the camps’ barbed wire, Japanese-American soldiers in the segregated 100th Battalion/ 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought fiercely on behalf of the United States against the Axis powers in Europe. The 100th/442nd RCT sustained the highest casualty rate of any American unit during the war and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. At home, no Japanese Americans were convicted of spying or disloyalty throughout the war.

Following World War II, Asian immigration remained very slow. But in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act ended immigration restrictions based on race. Asians once again began to move to the United States and to become citizens. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave them the means to challenge segregationist and discriminatory practices. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush officially apologized to the Japanese-American internees on behalf of the U.S. government and approved a restitution program, which gave each surviving internee $20,000.

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