WASHINGTON – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today delivered remarks at an event to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act at the U.S. Capitol. In her remarks, Ambassador Tai affirmed the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to fight for equality and justice for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders, and emphasized the role of all Americans in perfecting our nation’s founding ideals.
Ambassador Tai’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Thank you, Xiaoyan Zhang, for your kind introduction.
Hello, everyone. It is a great honor for me to be here today and to see so many friends.
It was May 6, 1882. In New York City, in Madison Square, you could see the giant arm of the unfinished Statue of Liberty, holding a torch. And on that same day, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law something unlike any other law since the founding of the republic—one that explicitly singled out a specific race and nationality—“Chinese”—as undesirable.
Three years later, in 1885, as a fundraising campaign was underway to pay for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Saum Song Bo, a Chinese immigrant and recent college graduate, wrote an open letter to The Sun newspaper, in which he said:
“The word Liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for all men of all nations, except the Chinese. That statue represents Liberty holding a torch which lights the passage. But are the Chinese allowed to come?”
With one stroke of a pen, this country became a land of liberty, equality, and justice not for all, but only for some.
And the founding principles of this nation enshrined in the Declaration of Independence—that all are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights—became less self-evident.
But our strength has never been just our economic or military might—it is our ability to recognize when our reality falls short of our ideals and the devotion to achieving a more perfect Union.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect for over sixty years. And in many ways, that law was the beginning of more discriminatory and hateful policies directed at immigrants and people of color across the United States.
Today, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of its repeal and honor those who fought so hard to do so. But we also know that progress is not linear.
Our Declaration is just an idea; only when its ideals are lived out through our people does it become our identity.
The story of our country is precisely that—people from all backgrounds, all colors, all creeds, coming together to live out those ideals of equality, freedom, and justice.
In a speech in July of 1858, President Lincoln famously said, more and more Americans over time may not have any blood relation to the men who wrote our Declaration. But each of us are linked to those immortal words by an electric cord through the patriotism and devotion to our ideals.
We are forever tied to those ideals because we walk in the shoes of so many that have come before us, those that bled and shed tears to push us forward, closer toward fulfilling the promise of America, for all people.
That is what so many of our heroes and heroines fought for.
That is what Anna May Wong fought for. That is what Yick Wo fought for. And Wong Kim Ark. And March Fong Eu. And so many more.
Their fight for a more just and inclusive America opened new doors for more people to come here from Asia, and I would not be here today with all of you, in my job serving the American people, without them.
I was born in Connecticut in 1974, the very first American in my family. Because of President Kennedy’s immigration reforms in the 1960s, my parents were able to come to the United States to pursue graduate studies in the sciences, become Americans, and devote their careers to public service.
In fact, I am both a second-generation American and a second-generation public servant.
I remember, earlier in my career as a USTR lawyer, one of the first cases I argued at the World Trade Organization. I was there with my USTR co-counsel, whose parents moved here from India.
As we stated that we were presenting the case on behalf of the United States of America, we beamed with pride knowing that, here we were, two daughters of immigrants from Asia, fighting for “we, the people.”
That is the America I know and love. That no matter what you look like, you are welcomed as a treasured character in our American story.
This story lives on today. It is being written by everyday Americans. Not willing to accept the status quo as a forgone conclusion. Not willing to grow cynical in the face of oppression and ignorance. But willing to stand up to the beating and cursing, living out their lives, providing for their loved ones, serving their communities, loving their neighbors.
And it is not just Chinese Americans or Asian Americans, but all Americans who have a stake in our nation’s story—that this experiment we call America is worth perfecting, this home worth building, and this bond worth defending.
Men and women like many of you here today. Not willing to settle for what was or could have been, but to pick up the pen and write a new chapter in our story.
I want to recognize the important group of Chinese American and Asian American organizations here this morning.
Thank you to Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi for sponsoring this event here in the Capitol Visitors Center.
And, of course, Congresswoman Judy Chu, our fearless leader of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Thank you for all that what you do. Our Administration is proud to be your partner in this work.
Since day one, President Biden and our entire team has been fighting for you and with you. One of the first actions President Biden took after taking office was to sign an Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.
And this past January, our Administration issued the first-ever National Strategy to Advance Equity, Justice, and Opportunity for AA and NHPI Communities.
President Biden also revamped the White House Initiative and the President’s Advisory Commission on AA and NHPIs.
It is an honor for me to serve as a co-chair of both, and we have been working hard on your behalf. To address systemic racism in our policies and programs. To improve language access and disaggregate data. To empower our small business owners and workers.
Yes, we know there is much more to do. Our communities are still experiencing bigotry and violence.
Columbia University and the Committee of 100 recently conducted a survey of Chinese Americans, and it found that nearly 75 percent of respondents experienced racial discrimination or racism-related violence in the last twelve months. And more than half worry about their safety.
According to the organization STOP AAPI Hate, between March 2020 and March 2022, there were over 11,000 incidents of anti-Asian hate in America.
Our communities continue to fear for our family members, our elders, and our children. We hear your concerns loud and clear, and this is not okay.
Tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China can make things worse. Our bilateral relationship is complex and consequential, and there are real challenges. But we need to be disciplined in defining what the challenge is and what it is not.
We need to be crystal clear that our concerns are with the PRC government’s policies and practices—not with the Chinese people or those of Chinese descent. We can fiercely defend our economic interests and national security and fiercely embrace our diversity at the same time—we must do both.
This is a big priority for me and my staff at USTR. We are crafting trade policies that are more just and inclusive. Meeting AA and NHPI workers and entrepreneurs and their communities where they are, to hear directly from them and to incorporate their concerns into our work—just as we do with workers, small business owners, family farmers across America.
We are making sure our policies reflect the needs and desires of all Americans across our economy—especially those that have been marginalized—not just the ones that can afford Washington lobbyists.
We will face old and new headwinds. But I am hopeful because of you—because of us. Because I know we will respond with the same resolve, the same determination, and the same courage—so that in the midst of our trials, our joy will be unhindered, our unity unbroken, and our hope untainted.
So that, as future generations look back eighty years from now—as they glance up at that torch in the hands of Liberty—they too will feel the connection through the electric cord Lincoln was talking about, that inseparable bond, and say, “Yes, this story is worth fighting for, this home is worth building.”