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We’d let them do laundry, but that’s it

In an Aug. 10 2012 phoRichard Eggars stands laundromCarlisle Iowthhas come back haunt him. Wells Fargo fired Eggers July 13

In an Aug. 10, 2012 photo, Richard Eggars stands in a laundromat in Carlisle, Iowa that has come back to haunt him. Wells Fargo fired Eggers on July 13, 2012 after discovering he was arrested 49 years ago for putting a cardboard cutout of a dime in a laundry machine at the laundromat. In compliance with a new federal law that forbids insured depository institutions, like Wells Fargo, from hiring people with criminal histories, the Des Moines branch of the company ran all of their employees fingerprints and background checks. The tougher standards are meant to clear out executives and mid-level bank employees guilty of transactional crimes such as identity theft and money laundering, but are being applied across the board because of possible fines for noncompliance. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Andrea Melendez) NO SALES

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Updated: March 8, 2013 5:53PM

These columns are like laundry bags. I’m always trying to jam more into them than will fit. Stuff hangs out, and I’m usually forced to leave something behind.

For instance, in Friday’s column about how Monopoly tokens can be traced back to the Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street, I mentioned national laundry groups being headquartered in Chicago, which led to the obvious question — why? Why did Chicago become a center for the laundry industry? The answer is fairly simply — the railroads terminate here, railroads had lots of white linen to clean, at one time, and funneled lots of visitors into lots of hotels. So it made sense to locate big industrial laundries here, along with their national organizations.

While unearthing this, I stumbled upon the role of the Chinese in laundries. There is a cliché of the Chinese laundryman — it lingers still in Westerns — with few of us pausing to wonder why. What drew the Chinese to washing? The answer is the Chinese came here, first to mine gold in California during the Gold Rush, then, like the Irish, built the railroads and, once that was done, met increasing hostility from Americans who, then and now, like to blame their woes on foreigners, and get all jumpy at the concept of faces whose complexions don’t mirror their own. Laundries were loud, hot, dirty, smelly, minimally-profitably businesses. Thus the Chinese ran laundries for the same reason many Mexican immigrants pick fruit and mow lawns today — because nobody else wanted to.

It’s a shame we can’t keep these tortured paths of previous immigrant groups in mind when dealing with immigration issues today. Instead we treat each situation as a new problem that has lurched out of nowhere, flinging our hands in the air and obsessing over every detail, rather than seeing them in their proper light, as the latest chapter in a long and sad saga of history repeating itself, year after year, one baby step in a march of continents and centuries.

The Chinese couldn’t become citizens — the Naturalization Act of 1790 said only “free white persons” could do that. Even Native-Americans born here couldn’t become citizens. The concept of “illegal” was always a good friend to the American bigot.

Still, Chinese people came here, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was exactly what it sounds like — an act of Congress to keep Chinese who lived outside of the U.S. from coming here to work hard.

It is worthwhile to note that at the time the Exclusion Act was passed, the population of Chinese in the United States was 0.2 percent, a reminder that it only takes a few strangers to seem like too many, to some.

This is a long way of saying that as happy as I am that the state of Illinois decided to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — to nudge them toward having car insurance and remove one potential obstacle to leading a semi-normal life — that I don’t want to get too excited about it. The dialogue is still far from addressing the one big issue: how to get the 11 million Hispanic immigrants who live in this country illegally on the path to citizenship. That question, like so many in this country, is too much in the hands of zealots who, like haters everywhere, dream of a lost country, which their imagination locates in the past but wasn’t there either, where everybody resembles their ideal of human perfection, a.k.a. themselves.

President Barack Obama has vowed to address this issue in his second term, but if his failure to achieve any significant change in the fiscal cliff debacle is any indication, he is going to ride the same pony of timidity out of office that he rode in.

We’re lucky, in the sense that this problem will fix itself, eventually. The children of illegal immigrants are automatic citizens, thanks to the 14th Amendment (which tears the fig leaf from the true motivations of the anti-immigrant crowd, who scream of their passion for law when it comes to enforcing our impossible snarl of broken immigration rules, yet suddenly grows silent — or belligerent — when it comes to the 14th Amendment). These kids will keep growing and eventually realize their numbers and voting strength and set this right, just as many of the past injustices and insults to American claims to liberty were eventually set right.

Underline “eventually.” The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, replaced by the Magnuson Act, which first allowed Chinese Americans to become citizens — they didn’t call it “amnesty” then — and permitted a set quota of immigrants to legally arrive from China. That set quota was 105 people a year. We’ve improved since then — though not so much that American colleges don’t still struggle to find genteel ways not to admit more qualified Asian students than their alumni can comfortably accept, the way they once did with Jews . . . but that is another column. As I said at the start, you just can’t jam enough into these things.

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