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You, Me, and the AAPI Community

Julie T Houth


  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed on May 6, 1882, was the only U.S. law to prevent immigration and naturalization based on race.
  • The law restricted Chinese immigration, denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants, and did not allow Chinese subjects in the United States to become naturalized citizens.
  • In the case of the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the U.S. Supreme Court established the parameters of the concept known as jus-soli—the citizenship of children born in the United States to non-citizens.
  • The history of the AAPI community is tied closely to federal and state rulings because the court system was the main avenue of recourse in the struggle for equality.
  • Illinois became the first state in the country to require the inclusion of Asian American history in public school curriculums through the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act (TEAACH).
You, Me, and the AAPI Community
SDI Productions via Getty Images

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The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the United States. The celebration began as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, designated in early May each year starting in 1979. It was then extended to a month-long celebration during May, designated each year starting in 1990. It was made a permanent designation to be celebrated every May thereafter when President George H.W. Bush signed Public Law 102-450 on October 23, 1992.

Even though nearly three decades have passed since that date, much of Asian American history remains foreign to many Americans, including Asian Americans themselves. I made a conscious effort to educate myself (and still do) in AAPI history because I was and am completely aware that the subject matter of AAPI history is scarce in most American grade schools. College was where I opened up my eyes and mind to things I hadn’t learned before; I was a political science major and decided to change my major to history with a focus on Asian history. I picked up a minor in sociology, too. College was where I learned that knowledge really is power. So is representation or a seat at the table. But representation isn’t enough without active, meaningful participation.

Your Background and Identity Can Be a Driving Force Toward Your Passions

The United States is known for its diversity in people and cultures, a place where many citizens of other countries seek refuge. It’s the place where dreams really can come true, but those dreams depend on many factors. As a member of the AAPI community, I am fully aware of the opportunities (and limitations) available to me. I come from a very diverse background and upbringing. My parents came to this country as refugees from the Vietnam War. I am of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, and French descent, and I am 100 percent American. I was born on U.S. soil along with my siblings. I am able to be an American citizen because of legal precedent that involved Asian immigrants:

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, was the only U.S. law to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race, and it restricted Chinese immigration for the next 60 years. This was the culmination of what was known as the “Chinese Must Go” movement and greatly contributed to the decline of Chinese immigration to the United States.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). In the late 19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Act denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants. Furthermore, no Chinese subject in the United States could become a naturalized citizen. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to parents who were both Chinese citizens residing in America. He visited China, and on his return to America, he was denied entry because he was not considered a citizen.

His case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that, because Wong was born in the United States and his parents were not “employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China,” the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment automatically made him a U.S. citizen. Justice Horace Gray authored the 6–2 majority opinion, in which the Court established the parameters of the concept known as jus soli—the citizenship of children born in the United States to non-citizens.

As for my own background, my father fled Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge genocide and met my mother in Vietnam shortly after the Vietnam War started. My parents were U.S. refugees and were stationed on several different Malaysian islands until they immigrated to the United States in 1979. My parents still suffer from post-traumatic stress from their experiences in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Malaysian islands. They often have emotional breakdowns from the memories that they recall from their journey to America. My parents told me many stories about what they went through during the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam War, and life on the Malaysian islands. Although I did not personally experience these events, I get very emotional when I think about what my parents had to endure to get to America. My father has told me that since his journey to America, he has had the mentality of “do or die.” This survival mentality kept my father and mother alive. My father has instilled in me the belief that if I am passionate about something, I should not hold myself back. Rather, I need to go and pursue it to the best of my abilities. This is the main reason why I chose a career in law. My parents faced life-and-death situations to come to the United States to give their children a better chance at life. I have developed a certain way of life, and I believe that I should never squander opportunities that I may encounter because the worst thing I can possibly do is to not take a chance and live in regret. My parents are concrete examples. They decided to fight to live another day. Sharing my parents’ story of how they survived during those unimaginable times is something I not only cherish but believe is necessary. Storytelling preserves history, and the awareness that comes with the act of storytelling is important to break unconscious bias, something we all have as humans.

Meaningful Representation Matters More Than a Facade

Asians and AAPIs have had a significant impact on American legal history. Asians and AAPIs in American history are American history. The history of the AAPI community is tied closely to federal and state court rulings because the main avenue of recourse in the struggle for equality was through the court system, as it was for other minority racial groups who were denied full access to certain constitutional rights.

As I mentioned earlier, although representation matters, it needs to be coupled with meaningful participation to make an impact. Many Asians and AAPIs have been in this country long before my parents stepped foot on American soil. Total integration into American culture and customs is very difficult to do for most people who were not born in America. Unfortunately, this can lead to discrimination, and there’s a legal history of it specifically with the AAPI community.

By now, regardless of their political beliefs, most Americans are at least aware that there has been a rise in discrimination against the AAPI community since the COVID-19 pandemic. But discrimination against the AAPI community occurred long before the COVID-19 pandemic, as shown in the Korematsu case:

Korematsu v. United States (1944). President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the War Department to create military areas from which any or all Americans might be excluded. Although Executive Order 9066 as written applied to all civilians, in practice it was targeted at those of Japanese descent. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of Western Defense Command, ordered “[a]ll persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” to be relocated to internment camps. Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American man, refused to leave the exclusion zone. Korematsu was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast Military Area during World War II.

Of significant note is that Dale Minami, a civil rights lawyer, led the reopening of this case and helped overturn Korematsu’s criminal conviction 40 years after the case closed. Minami received several awards, including the ABA’s Thurgood Marshall and Spirit of Excellence Awards in 2019.

Because GPSolo magazine’s theme this issue is real estate, I should mention another noteworthy law:

California’s Alien Land Law of 1913. This was a significant law intended to limit Asian immigrants “by curtailing their privileges which they may enjoy here; for they will not come in large numbers and long abide by us if they may not acquire land,” according to the attorney general at the time. Under this statute, agricultural land could not be owned by “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

As anti-Japanese sentiment intensified, the Alien Land Law was amended to ease prosecution, and funding for enforcement was increased. The result was a dramatic expansion of escheat proceedings. From 1942 to 1947, 59 escheat actions were brought against Japanese Americans; only 14 had been initiated in the previous 30 years.

The Alien Land Law was finally declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court in 1953 and repealed in 1956. However, this law, like many laws that focused on the AAPI community, already did decades’ worth of damage. How we learn as a human race is by acknowledging that things like this happened in our history and do our best not to repeat them.

Next Step Forward

The inclusion of Asians and AAPIs in academic curricula can help educate the community at large on the historical significance and impact this group of people had in American history. Illinois became the first state in the country to require the inclusion of Asian American history in public school curriculums through the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act (TEAACH). TEAACH takes the first step toward addressing some of the gaps by requiring all public elementary schools and high schools to have a unit dedicated to Asian American history. The passage of this law will depend a lot on its implementation, but it is a start toward a more inclusive America. I am a firm believer that lawyers have the great responsibility to promote justice and serve their respective communities. Understanding this country’s past and present is essential in the creation of a better, more inclusive future.