For Covington & Burling’s Martin Gold, his firm’s pro bono efforts to get Congress to express regret for anti-Chinese laws strike a personal chord.
Gold, co-chairman of Covington’s government affairs practice group, said his Jewish grandfather emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1908 to escape persecution and gain opportunities to succeed. But U.S. laws in the 19th and 20th centuries did not afford the Chinese the same prospect.
“I am Sam Richman’s grandson,” Gold said. “What is good enough for him should be good for them.”
Gold said he first got the idea to help the Chinese-American community when he was in China in 2009 and heard about the California Legislature passing a bill apologizing for discriminatory laws. “It’s what got the spark going in my own mind,” he said.
Gold is leading about a dozen Covington lobbyists pressuring the House and Senate to approve resolutions expressing regret for passing laws that discriminated against the Chinese.
Only one member of the group is of Chinese descent: Erica Lai, an associate at the law firm. But Gold’s knowledge of issues related to the Chinese is deep. He has lobbied on behalf of the China-United States Exchange Foundation for almost a year. Since last year, the Hong Kong-based organization has paid Covington $110,000 for the firm’s lobbying efforts regarding U.S.-China relations.
Gold also is working on a book that will detail congressional discrimination against the Chinese. The lobbyist said he expects to complete the book, tentatively titled Forbidden Citizens, in the next couple of months.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) in May introduced resolutions expressing regret for congressional actions that were biased against the Chinese.
The Senate measure has six Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors. The House legislation has 12 Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors. The resolutions are waiting for consideration by the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
Congress issues apologies to American racial or ethnic groups for U.S. government misdeeds sparingly. In 2008 and 2009, the House and the Senate passed resolutions apologizing for slavery and subsequent Jim Crow laws that discriminated against African-Americans. Congress also apologized in 1988 for discrimination against Japanese-Americans during World War II, and expressed remorse in 1993 for overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The resolutions detail several incidents of congressional discrimination.
Among them were efforts to prohibit Chinese immigrants from entering the country. The Fifteen Passenger Bill in 1879, for example, would have barred more than 15 Chinese passengers on a ship bound for the United States. A House committee report that accompanied the legislation said the Chinese have “sordid, selfish, immoral and non-amalgamating habits.” President Rutherford Hayes vetoed the legislation, saying the bill couldn’t be reconciled with the Burlingame Treaty, which allowed Chinese people to move freely between the United States and China.
Congress then ratified the Angell Treaty in 1881, which permitted a suspension, but not a prohibition, of allowing Chinese workers to enter the United States. In 1882, Congress approved the first Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have prohibited Chinese laborers from coming to the United States for 20 years and denied Chinese people from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. President Chester Arthur vetoed the bill, saying the legislation was incompatible with the Angell Treaty.
But the veto didn’t deter Congress in 1882 from passing another Chinese Exclusion Act.
The second Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from coming to the United States for 10 years and forced Chinese workers already legally in the United States to secure “certificates of return” if they left the country and wished to return. It also prohibited Chinese people from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
A House committee report that accompanied the legislation said the Chinese “retain their distinctive peculiarities and characteristics, refusing to assimilate themselves to our institutions, and remaining a separate and distinct class, intrenched [sic] behind immovable prejudices; that their ignorance or disregard of sanitary laws, as evidenced in their habits of life, breeds disease, pestilence, and death; that their claim of superiority as to religion and civilization, destroys all hope of their improvement from contact with our institutions.”
In 1892, Congress approved the Geary Act, which renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act for 10 years and ordered all Chinese people in the United States to secure “certificates of residence” from the federal government. The bill also required Chinese people facing deportation from the United States to drum up testimony from “at least one credible white witness” in order to confirm their residency.
Finally, in 1902, Congress gave indefinite extensions to all laws limiting and regulating Chinese residency and immigration. All Chinese people in the United States and its territories at the time, including the Philippines, were subject to these statutes under the law.
It wasn’t until 1943 that Congress repealed all discriminatory laws against the Chinese in an attempt to help the U.S. war effort. The laws were fodder for an anti-American propaganda campaign aimed at China, a U.S. ally in World War II.
Chu, whose grandfather was subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, said on the House floor in June that it is “long past time” for Congress to officially express regret for its discriminatory actions aimed at the Chinese.
“With my resolution, Congress will acknowledge the injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act, express regret for the lives it destroyed, and make sure that the prejudice that stained our Nation is never repeated again,” Chu said. “And it will demonstrate that today is a different day and that today we stand side by side for a stronger America.”
Gold’s lobbying campaign began last year. Covington is now doing the lobbying on behalf of the 1882 Project, a nonpartisan group trying to get Congress to pass Brown and Chu’s resolutions. Asian-American organizations came together to start the 1882 Project last year.
Ted Gong, a leader of the 1882 Project, said his mother is among those people who were affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act. His mother, Kit, tried to enter the United States in the 1930s using identification papers from her sister, who had been in the United States, left the country and died. But U.S. authorities at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay turned her away. It wasn’t until after World War II that Kit entered the United States as the bride of a man who was in the Army. “I think she would be very happy to have” the legislation passed, Gong said.
Michael Lin, chairman of the 1882 Project, said his organization is trying to mobilize the Chinese-American community to get the word out about the group’s cause. But Covington’s pro bono lobbying “helps tremendously,” he said. “Without that kind of guidance and support, it is very difficult to navigate in this town,” Lin said.
Gold said he doesn’t think anyone will oppose the resolutions if they come up for floor votes. But getting there might take time because there are competing priorities in Congress.
Ultimately, their lobbying effort is really a two-step process, Gold said. First, educate the members about the project. Then, convince them to do something.
“They have to get their head around it and their heart into it,” he said.
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at email@example.com.