By Jonathan Gonzalez
Parallels of present day immigration controversies echoed in a presentation Feb. 15 on Chinese immigrants by Dr. Andrew Urban, “Servants and Refugees: The 1916-17 Punitive Expedition and its Labor Histories.”
Part of a series of discussions titled, “The Mexican Revolution on the U.S. Border,” Rutgers University Assistant Professor Dr. Urban was one of two speakers along with Raul Ramos, an associate professor at the University of Houston, to speak.
Urban’s study focused on the aftermath of the failed 1916-1917 Punitive Expedition by the U.S. government to enter into Mexico to pursue infamous revolutionary Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution.
As the expedition retreated back to the U.S., a group of over 524 Chinese immigrants residing in Mexico that helped throughout the expedition and sought asylum in the U.S. out of fear for backlash against their actions, were the subject of controversy.
“Their situation provoked a contentious and protracted debate as to whether they deserved asylum, and if so, what form asylum would take,” Dr. Urban said. “Before 1875, there were no distinctions between immigrants and refugees at all.”
At the time, a ban on Chinese immigration was in place in the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of the first forms of immigration policy instituted by the U.S. government.
However, thanks to their service to the U.S. military expedition, these immigrants were granted asylum, despite the immigration ban.
“We tend to forget that as the U.S.-Mexico border solidified as a kind of space of borderlands that need to be policed, it’s not Mexican immigrants that are the initial concern of the officials policing and patrolling the space. It’s Chinese immigrants,” Dr. Urban said.
According to Dr. Urban, this history of immigration regulation by the U.S. persisted throughout the late-19th and early-20th century quotas against Armenian, Irish and Jewish refugees.
But the exception granted by the U.S. government upon the Pershing’s 524 Chinese refugees poses the question as to how to government qualifies the worthiness of immigrants and refugees entering the country.
“In the United States, there’s been a long tradition befitting our country’s conception of citizenship in which both manhood and fitness for self-governance was proven on the battlefield,” Dr. Urban said. “For black men, Chinese men and other races of color, however, the capacity in which they were allowed to demonstrate their manhood was itself a contentious matter.”
In the case of Pershing’s Chinese refugees, it was through their service to the Punitive Expedition that validated their worth to be admitted into the U.S.
Dr. Urban pointed out the parallels of this policy to the current state of affairs with countries in the Middle East that have seen U.S. occupation.
“Since 2007, refugees from Iraq have been given preference as a ‘priority population’ within the annual quota slots allotted to refugees. In addition, another 500 special visas have been set aside each year to Iraqi translators that worked with U.S. forces,” Dr. Urban said.
This course of action threatens to continue a discourse of the “good immigrant,” and perpetuating a stigma against those considered “bad” immigrants according to Dr. Urban, which he believes are based on notions of patriotism and martial citizenship.
“The Trump administration’s recently turned down Muslim travel ban is parallel to this discussion in a way that cannot be ignored,” Dr. Urban said. “I do not think that helping U.S imperialism abroad should be the most important prerequisite for proving one’s humanity and worth for asylum.”