Frail and dignified at 88, the man leaned on his cane and smiled as the story of his immigration in 1936 flashed behind him on a museum wall. Like tens of thousands of others who managed to come to the United States from China during a 60-year period when the law singled them out for exclusion, the man, Tun Funn Hom, had entered as a “paper son,” with false identity papers that claimed his father was a native citizen.
For years, it was a shameful family secret. But Mr. Hom, a New York laundry worker who helped build battleships in World War II and put three children through college, outlived the stigma of an earlier era’s immigration fraud.
A narrow legalization program let him reclaim his true name in the 1950s. His life story is now on permanent display at the Museum of Chinese in America, which reopened last week at 215 Centre Street. And it illuminates an almost forgotten chapter in American history, one that historians say has new relevance in the current crackdown on illegal immigration.
“When we think about illegal immigration, we think about Mexican immigrants, whereas in fact illegal immigration cuts across all immigrant groups,” said Erika Lee, the author of “At America’s Gate: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.”
We think about Mexican ILLEGAL immigrants in large part because we share a border with Mexico, a country who can’t provide stability and prosperity for a vast number of its citizens. Consequently, around 70% of the illegal immigrants are coming from our southern borders.
That said, there’s also this worrisome thing known as “Islamic terrorism”? It’d be nice if we could at least keep the Islamic crazies who enter this country down to at least the bare minimum of those who do so legally; is that too much, too unreasonable to ask for?
No, opposing illegal immigration has nothing to do with racism.
Long after exclusion laws were repealed by Congress in 1943, after China became a World War II ally, that vast power over noncitizens was deployed in raids against immigrants of various ethnic groups whose politics were considered suspect.
And rightly so. (The dangers of espionage and sabotage within our own borders by aliens and descendants of Axis nations was real- this includes but was not exclusive to, those of Japanese-American ancestry- read Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of Internment).
In the 1950s, Mr. Hom and his relatives, like many Chinese New Yorkers, suddenly faced the exposure of their false papers in just such an operation. The government was tipped off by an informer in Hong Kong as part of a cold war effort to stop illegal immigration.
“We were very scared,” said Mrs. Hom, who worked at the family’s laundry, first in the Bronx, then in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “Everybody was very worried on account maybe they all be sent back to China.”
But in a government “confession program,” Mr. Hom and some of his relatives admitted their illegal entry; because Mr. Hom had served in the military, he received citizenship papers within months.
As someone who never made it to high school, he now beams over his children’s professional successes and his six multiethnic grandchildren. His son, Tom, is a dentist in Manhattan; his daughter Mary is a physician in the Syracuse area, and Dorothy, an interior designer, works with her husband, Michael Strauss, a principal with Vanguard Construction, which recently completed DBGB Kitchen and Bar, Daniel Boulud’s latest restaurant.
At a time when debates about immigration often include the claim that “my relatives came the legal way,” referring to a period when there were few restrictions on any immigrants except the Chinese, the Hom family has a different perspective.
“One’s status being legal or illegal, it’s two seconds apart at any point,” Dorothy said. “For some, the process is more difficult than others.”
It’s great that Mr. Hom served this country and became a productive member of our society, and not a dreg. However, his anecdotal should not be used as justification for opening our borders, making American citizenship devoid of meaning and value. For every Hom story, there is a counter-story of an illegal immigrant victimizing our society through rape, murder, and robbery. In my opinion, both anecdotal versions are marginal to the argument. (Those opposed to illegal immigrants in this country sometimes point to illegals who commit serious crimes, as though it means an epidemic of majority illegals committing rape, murder, and mayhem; however, it remains that legal residents and American citizens are just as capable of engaging in crime and patriotism as are illegals).
The fact remains that there should be a standard for achieving American citizenship status and it should be done through legal channels. We simply do not have the resources to take in the entire world, all at once. Such absorbtion would make it nigh impossible to achieve assimilation. That may make the multiculturalists scratch their heads and ask “so what?” But assimilation is absolutely essential to maintaining the values and traditions of our country and not have us dissolve into a land of many mini-nations.
Also, please consider the following:
the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, has found that the immigration wave is the primary reason poverty persists in the United States. Poverty among native-born Americans has shown consistent, linear decline since the 1960s. Were the country not accepting such large numbers of immigrants, American poverty might be nearly bested by now.
Subtract for immigrants, and the gap between native-born middle and wealthy Americans is shrinking, not widening. Most complaints about rising income inequality in the United States come from the political left, which would be utterly horrified if immigration were restricted. If open borders are to continue, then we must accept slower income gains in the middle.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.