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My Grandparents Were ‘Illegal Alien Invaders’

My Grandparents Were ‘Illegal Alien Invaders’

My grandparents were ‘illegal alien invaders’ who just came to the US to have a few ‘anchor babies’ to claim ‘birthright citizenship.’

At least, that’s what Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R.-Pennsylvania), quite a few people in Arizona, and quite a few more Americans are thinking, based on the immigration reform efforts modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 that at least half a dozen states are considering.  At a recent news conference, Metcalfe said that he considers it his goal to eliminate

“an anchor baby status, in which an illegal alien invader comes into our country and has a child on our soil that is granted citizenship automatically.”
(quote from the NDN blog)


‘Birthright Citizenship’

Under new legislation proposed yesterday, my father and his siblings would all be denied US citizenship.

Yesterday, lawmakers from five states (Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina) introduced two immigration reform measures that are to be introduced in at least 14 states. According to the January 5th New York Times,

  • the first measure says that babies born in the US to illegal immigrants are not US citizens
  • the second measure calls on states to adopt common positions on the issue of immigration reform

Said Arizona legislator John Kavanaugh in the New York Times: “Only a handful of countries in the world grant citizenship based on the G.P.S. location of the birth.’ Indeed, and at least some of us believe that this is one reason that makes the United States what it is, the  ‘melting pot’ and a nation of immigrants.

As Care2 blogger Jessica Pieklo wrote in a recent post: about the proposed new immigration laws:

Since many of these measures are expected to pass, brace for protracted legal battles as advocacy groups look to the courts to define the scope and the reach of federal power in all matters pertaining to immigration.  So far the courts have sided with a clean and easy read of the Constitution and ruled against state efforts to craft their own immigration laws, and so long as judges remain true to precedent and traditional rules of legal analysis the other court challenges should fall in line.  


The real question for Republicans then is what is their end game–short term power or long-term relevance?  Because if they are looking to be a leading party for generations to come then they need to re-evaluate a political strategy that intentionally demonizes a population that already outnumbers whites in some areas.

I take the ‘demonization’ of illegal immigrants and their children very personally.  Had it been some 100 years ago, my grandparents would have been just the people Metcalfe and others are targeting.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, Yeh Yeh and Ngin Ngin
‘Immigration reform’ measures such as those proposed by Metcalfe are not new.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major law that restricted immigration to the US. The law halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited the Chinese from becoming citizens. It was extended for another ten years under the Geary Act and became permanent in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a precursor to immigration-restriction acts in the 1920s, leading up to the National Origins Act of 1929. This law put a cap on overall immigration to the United States at 150,000 per year and barred Asian immigration.  

The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed by the Magnuson Act until 1943 during World War II, when China and the US were allies against Japan.

From 1910 to 1940, immigrants from China were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay before being allowed to proceed into the US. My grandparents Charlie and Lee Chew—to me, Yeh Yeh (‘paternal grandfather’) and Ngin Ngin (‘paternal grandmother)—were among the 56,113 Chinese detained on the island.

Yeh Yeh and Ngin Ngin emigrated from Toisan County in Guangdong province in southern China, in the 1920s. Yeh Yeh had previously been to Vietnam (where he pulled a rickshaw), the Philippines, and Cuba before deciding to try his luck in Gum Saan (Cantonese for ‘Gold Mountain,’ as San Francisco and California were referred to). Yeh Yeh and Ngin Ngin were introduced by a matchmaker and married in China. 

Because the US could not deny entry to those who were already citizens by virtue of their having a father who was an American citizen, many bought papers identifying them as the son of Chinese already in the US. And so Yeh Yeh came over first as the paper son of a man named Jung. While on Angel Island, he had to go through a grueling interrogation, in which he had to answer questions (often with very specific answers) about the house, village, and ancestors of his paper father.  Ngin Ngin had to do the same when she followed Yeh Yeh to the US. I’ve seen copies of the papers about her interrogation with immigration officials. She was almost sent back to China, due to her not responding correctly to the interrogation questions. But after some more time, she was allowed to leave Angel Island and joined Yeh Yeh. 

Yeh Yeh bought a small grocery store in the 1940s and he and Ngin Ngin had five children, of whom my father is the fourth and first son. When my dad was a teenager, his family changed their name legally back to Chew. All of my aunts, my uncle, and my dad went to college, and both of my grandparents became American citizens. 

And were the laws Metcalfe and others proposed passed, I don’t know if any of that would have happened; if I  would be a college professor of Classics, of the literature and languages of the ancient Greeks and Romans (sometimes referred to as ‘dead white European males‘); if I would be sitting here telling you that we need to stop these efforts to undo the 14th Amendment with its guarantee of, yes, “birthright citizenship”.


Previous related posts at Care2:
New Year, New Immigration Laws Planned

House Set To Take Up Birthright Citizenship

The 14th Amendment and The Menace of Anchor Babies: The GOP’s New Wedge

Read more: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The photo is of Ngin Ngin and me when I received my doctorate from Yale University in 1995.

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2 comments

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10:53PM PST on Feb 29, 2012

Thank you.

6:47AM PDT on Jul 25, 2011

Alien, but not extraterrestrial. :-)

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