On my visit to Temple’s Special Collections Research Center, I was hoping to find evidence of Indonesian immigration to Philadelphia in the Nationalities Services Center (NSC) archives, but instead I found the immigration stories of our colonizers.
This whole research process has made me realize just how little there is of Indonesia in the archives. Finding the stories of the Dutch from the Dutch East Indies immigrating to the US made me think about Holland’s reputation today as a progressive country, but it seems the world has forgotten that they were once an Imperial power that reached Asia, Africa and the Americas. The oral histories in the pamphlet talked about the Dutch leaving Indonesia due to “Indonesian extremists.” I wanted to put a footnote next to it, explaining that who they called “extremists” were probably “Independence fighters.” The country has successfully rehabilitated its image from colonizer into a benign Western European country full of tulips and windmills. I started to think about what reparations would mean for a people who were subjugated to colonial rule for 350 years.
A New Proposal
Earlier on in my research, I had decided to focus on the year 1965, a pivotal moment for Immigration and citizenship, with the passing of the The Immigration and Nationalities Act of 1965 that opened the doors to more immigration from Asian countries. 1965 was also the year of the Indonesian military coup, and I wondered if there would be any mention of that event in the NSC archives.
In the NSC box titled “Kennedy Proposal,” I found a fact sheet of “A New Immigration Proposal” dated March 21, 1962. There was a handwritten note at the top that I made out to read: “For discussion and motion at next Boardmeeting.” This immigration proposal looked to be the precursor for the the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which would also be referred to as the Hart-Celler Act.
A lot has been written about the significance of this law, which sought to do away with the quota system based on country of origin from the earlier Immigration Act of 1924 that gave preference to immigration from western European countries and excluded immigration from Asia. The 1965 Act changed the priority to reuniting families, which would change the face of immigration in the United States.
Seeing the page in the pamphlet comparing the numbers for existing and proposed quota drove the point home. The numbers from Western Europe were in the tens of thousands, compared to the countries in the Asia-Pacific Triangle, which ranged from 100-200 with Indonesia at 100 people. The numbers don’t lie, and it illustrated the racist immigration policies of 1924 and 1952. It reinforced the notion that America was only for Western Europeans. Looking at the numbers, the highest quotas were for immigrants from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland. What are the other long-lasting effects of these immigration laws?
As the United States tried to assert its moral authority during the Cold War, these racist policies exposed them to criticism from communist countries. As an immigrant growing up in a “Third World” country and being fed the American dream from afar, I wanted to believe that the United States was a country who welcomed immigrants from all nations, but in reality, the wars they were fighting in Southeast Asia probably had more to do with the changing of the law.
The Indonesia Project?
Another potentially interesting item I found was a piece of paper dated June 22, 1964 from the American Immigration Conference that year, an agenda for the ‘Committee on Integration.’ Number one on the list was “Indonesian Project.”
What was the Indonesian Project? What did it mean? What did the Committee on Integration have to do with Indonesia? As far as I knew, there was no meaningful Indonesian immigration to the United States before 1998. I did google searches for the conference for that year and I found nothing. Would I ever know what the “Indonesian Project” was?
No Human is Illegal
A part of the reason why I wanted to do this research is to understand how groups in this country have fought for citizenship. Today, the fight is for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country who are being treated as criminals. I wondered, when did the phrase “illegal alien” come into the public consciousness? It was only in 2013 that the AP changed their stylebook to no longer refer to humans as ‘illegal.’
Alien : belonging to another place, coming from another world, differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility; strange and not familiar. In law: someone who lives in a country of which they are not a legal citizen.
Coming to English as my second language, I always associated “alien” to equal “extraterrestrial.” I always chuckled with bitterness when I heard the term.
I found a book in the SCRC Archives titled, The Alien Immigrant, written in 1903. In perusing the book in the reading room, the book’s subject was Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to England. However, there was a chapter dedicated to America. It described immigrants paying for their passage by entering temporary servitude. A passage reads:
Whenever a vessel arrived at Philadelphia or New York its passengers were offered for public sale.
I was also intrigued when I found an interesting description in the archive titled: “Illegal Alien – Scapegoat or Sinner.” It looked to be a seminar, and I wanted to understand how the issue was being framed back then. I was hoping to find a summary or planning documents, but again, I was disappointed to learn that the documents were merely receipts of people who attended a luncheon that discussed the topic.
I had put the title of the luncheon into a google search and the results page came up on my screen to read: “It looks like there aren’t many great matches for your search.”
There was only one match and I clicked on the link; in the archives of the National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings was the Official proceedings of the annual meeting: 1978.
It wasn’t the actual document, but rather a footnote on page 224, which read: James J. Orlow, “Illegal Alien: Scapegoat or Sinner” (paper presented at the Nationalities Service Center, Philadelphia, and Association of Immigration and Nationality Lawyers, Philadelphia Chapter conference on Issues in United States Immigration, 1976), pp. 1-14.”
The name stopped me in my tracks. James J. Orlow was my family’s immigration lawyer. We consulted him after 9/11, when NSEERS required all males above 18 years old who were from Muslim majority countries to register with the government. When it happened, I was in disbelief, I never thought America would put in place such clearly discriminatory policies, but the last 20 years, and especially the last four years, have opened my eyes to the ease by which democracy can slide into authoritarianism, especially when there are barely repercussions to an insurrection.
What’s in store?
I think about the fact that the indigenous people of this country did not obtain citizenship until 1924, 432 years after Columbus thought he had landed in the East Indies. It’s why this protest slogan resonate so much to so many: “No Human is Illegal on Stolen Land.”
For many immigrants the act of crossing air space, an imaginary line, a border, makes them instantly a criminal. They come for hundreds of reasons; America is the land of opportunity; America is the land of freedom; you can be anything you want in America. Or perhaps their country was one of the ones where the U.S. helped to overthrow a democratically elected president, or where the U.S had propped up a dictator so that its companies could have a share of its mineral resources.
Does citizenship equal humanity? Scapegoating of immigrants has existed in this country since racist immigration laws have been in place, since colonization used racism to subjugate humans to inhumane conditions.
In 1986, immigration laws were enacted that gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented workers. Will I see another act like that in my lifetime? It’s been twenty years since our hopes were first raised, only to see it falter every time. In the meantime, 11 million humans in this country still live in the shadows, dehumanized.