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“The Chinese Exclusion Act,” premiering tonight as part of PBS’s “American Experience,” was in the works well before the election of Donald Trump. But it feels as if it were made for a moment when border walls and immigration controls are topics of daily conversation.

Directed by the PBS stalwart Ric Burns and his longtime collaborator Li-Shin Yu, the documentary is centered on the 1882 act of the title, the first American law to restrict the immigration of a particular ethnic group and ban its members from citizenship.

Throughout the film, the contemporary parallels smack you in the face. Chinese laborers, imported to build the western side of the transcontinental railroad, are seen as a threat when the railroad is finished and the post-Civil War depression of the 1870s drives up white unemployment. A presidential candidate (Rutherford B. Hayes) exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment loses the popular vote but wins the electoral vote. Principled opposition to a citizenship ban (mostly from Republicans) is finally outweighed by the need to court Southern lawmakers readmitted to Congress after Reconstruction.

Read the story at The New York Times. 

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