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Civil Rights in the United States

Civil Rights and Asian Americans

Early Laws Discriminating against Asian Americans

As a result of anti-Asian prejudice that shaped policy for decades, federal laws banned Asian immigration and denied Asian Americans citizenship rights, and state laws limited Asian Americans' property rights.

The first wave of immigrants from Asia arrived as a result of the discovery of gold that led to the 1849 California gold rush. In the 1860s Chinese workers built much of the western half of the transcontinental railroad line. Anti-Chinese sentiment led to riots in California and calls for a ban on Chinese immigration in the late 19th century, however. Congress responded by passing restrictive legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a law that banned any new immigration of Chinese workers into the United States. The ban remained in place until World War II, when China was an ally of the United States.

Opposition also arose to immigrants from Japan. State legislatures in western states passed laws banning interracial marriages and excluding Japanese Americans from public facilities, such as restaurants. In 1906 the school board in San Francisco decided to place all Asian children in a segregated school. The decision created a diplomatic crisis with Japan. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated with Japan the Gentlemen's Agreement, under which Japan agreed to stop Japanese workers from emigrating to the United States. In return Roosevelt promised to persuade the San Francisco school board not to segregate Japanese students

According to a federal law from 1790, only "free white persons" could become naturalized citizens. Thus, Asian immigrants were not eligible to become U.S. citizens. In two rulings in the 1920s, the Supreme Court upheld the ban on naturalization of Asian immigrants. A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment led to changes in immigration law in the 1920s. Among its other provisions, the 1924 National Origins Act banned the immigration of persons ineligible to become citizens, thus blocking immigration from Asia.

States also passed other discriminatory laws. In 1913 California passed the Alien Land Law, which barred persons ineligible for citizenship from owning land. While it prevented Asian immigrants from owning property, their native-born children could.

Japanese Internment

The federal government forcibly relocated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II, for which it apologized and paid restitution in the 1980s.
The 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to declare war against Japan. Soon, the government carried out unprecedented restrictions targeting a specific group with Executive Order 9066, a 1942 presidential order issued by President Roosevelt giving the U.S. military authority to designate "areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded." The order was used to force Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast into detention camps, resulting in their internment. Internment is the confinement of a person considered to be a security threat. As a result of this order, some 112,000 Japanese Americans—many of them U.S. citizens by birth—were forced to leave their homes and sell their businesses and were then taken to relocation camps in the interior of the country. Men, women, and children remained in these camps essentially for the duration of the war, living under armed guard for years. In Hawaii, where there was a large Japanese population located near military bases, only a few individuals were sent to detention centers, but only if they were investigated and found to be suspicious.

Japanese Internment Camps during World War II

During World War II, after they were removed from their homes in the exclusion area, Japanese Americans were held in internment camps, most of which were located farther inland.
The order was challenged in court. The result was Korematsu v. United States, a 1944 Supreme Court decision that declared the Japanese American relocation justified by the war and thus constitutional. In his dissent from the majority opinion, however, Justice Frank Murphy asserted that the relocation order to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast "falls into the ugly abyss of racism." While the people returned to the West Coast after their release, they had to rebuild their lives. The injustice of the Japanese American internment was formally recognized in 1988. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill passed by Congress that issued an apology to the victims of internment and provided restitution of $20,000 to each surviving person who had been interned during the war.

Asian Immigration after the 1960s

After restrictions against Asian immigration were lifted in the mid-20th century, immigration from Asia soared.
The Immigration Act of 1952 lifted many restrictions on immigration from Asia and allowed Asians to become naturalized citizens. The most significant change in immigration law came with the Immigration Act of 1965. That law ended the system that allotted immigration quotas by country. Immigration from Asia increased in the following decades. In the 21st century, illegal immigration from Asia has increased, making undocumented immigrants from Asia the second largest group of undocumented immigrants after Latinos.