February 19th and the Struggle Through the Centuries for Asian American Citizenship

Instructions for the relocation of Japanese Americans post-Executive Order 9066.

Instructions for the relocation of Japanese Americans post-Executive Order 9066.


On February 19th, 1942, it had been three months since the United States entered the second World War. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed and issued one of the most infamous orders in American History—Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the forced relocation of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the west coast into concentration camps for the remainder of the war. Yet, not a single Japanese American or resident was found guilty of espionage.

Executive Order 9066 remains one of the most famous instances that defined Asian American citizenship. February 19th is now recognized as the Day of Remembrance by many because of this very order. However, this was only one part of a long legacy of acts by the United States government to limit the citizenship rights of Asian Americans. In its own context, the order was issued in a time where Asian Americans could not become naturalized citizens, they often time could not own land, and they couldn’t testify in court against White Americans.

But February 19th marks many anniversaries. The date tracks a legacy spanning more than a hundred years of policy from all three branches of government that sought to limit Asian American immigration and citizenship.


On February 19, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862. The 19th Century marked the first waves of Chinese immigrants through the gold rush and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. At the time, transport to the US was often bought on credit and as a result, many Chinese immigrants were often forced by their economic situations to accept lower wages than White Americans. Not unlike undocumented immigrants today, the cheaper Chinese immigrants became a preferred, exploitable labor source to landowners.

Increased competition for work fostered resentment amongst White miners, who began to form organizations that actively lobbied for White labor interests. A recession in 1853 heightened tensions, and these ‘anticoolie clubs’ actively lobbied for increased segregation. Their work culminated in a number of California state laws as well as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 that banned the transport of Chinese immigrants from China. This act was among the first of many. In 1870, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1870 and in 1882, it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.


The Naturalization Act of 1870 opened the door for African naturalization, but it continued to block Asian immigrants’ access to citizenship. Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh, petitioned to be considered as White, due to him being a high-caste Aryan, that is, by identifying as the descendent of a presumably White group that invaded northern India rather than as a non-White Indian. Thind’s petition did not seek to challenge the notion that Asians should not be allowed to naturalize, but that he was an exception, using the reality that race science was/is an inherently flawed way of understanding race.

However, on February 19th, 1923, exactly 61 years after the passing of the Anti-Coolie Act of 1962, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that Thind was not considered White. Furthermore, the court argued that Asians were excluded, not based on a notion of inferiority, but simply a notion of difference—Indians were simply so different that they would never be assimilated into the United States. This ruling eventually led to many Indian Americans having their citizenship revoked and their land or property seized. In the first-half of the 20th Century, many Indian Americans simply left due to the pressure. Thind eventually gained citizenship by virtue of being a veteran.

Bhagat Singh Thind in uniform, 1918.

Bhagat Singh Thind in uniform, 1918.


Throughout this timeframe, the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was a primary force in limiting Asian immigration and the rights of Asian Americans. The league was a federation of labor unions that advocated for White laborers throughout the states. Like the ‘anticoolie’ clubs, the league sought to preserve a White America unthreatened by immigrant labor or desegregation. Gains made by Asian Americans during this time, such as the right to attend public schools, were only made by taking losses in future immigration. The AEL didn’t dissolve until after World War II and Executive Order 9066.


34 years after Executive Order 9066 and 200 years after the founding of the country, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 4417 on February 19th, 1976. This order, coming after 34 years of Japanese American activism, officially rescinded Executive Order 9066. The order admitted that wrong had been done, but it offered no official apology. That, and some reparations, would take 12 more years.

Gerald Ford signs Executive Order 4417. Photo from the White House archives.

Gerald Ford signs Executive Order 4417. Photo from the White House archives.

The Anti-Coolie Act, the United States vs. Thind Decision, and Executive Order 9066 mark three government actions—from three branches of government—that sought to limit Asian Americans’ citizenship rights.

Our right to exist as Asian Americans has always been conditional. And to some degree, it has always been based on the perceived threat we pose to White Americans. In 1862, it was the threat of taking job opportunities, in 1923, it was the threat of being different than White America, and in 1942, it was the threat of wartime sabotage. But what were the threats? In 1862, Chinese immigrants were the ones being exploited. In 1923, Thind had to risk his life in wartime to earn citizenship. And after WWII, not one Japanese American was convicted of espionage or sabotage.

February 19th spans a 156-year-long history from 1862 to now, February 19th, 2018. Our legislature still cannot come to a consensus on a long-term solution for DACA recipients, who are mostly Latinx, but also include many Asian Americans and others. As compromise after compromise is shot down, it seems that any gains immigrants make will come at a cost to future immigration.

Despite being the ‘model minority,’ Asian Americans have long been fighting for the rights to be truly American. Like other people of color, we have constantly been the ‘Other.’ Like Thind, it can be tempting to cast aside our ‘Asian-ness,’ our ‘Otherness’ to assimilate. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Instead we must align with other people of color and fight for all of our rights to be here, as Americans.