Asian migrations to the United States form one aspect of a dynamic, global social process that has seen peoples from Asian nations create new communities in such diverse destinations as the United States, Cuba, Canada, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom, East Africa, South Africa, and nation-states in Europe. This demographic movement happened over a long period of time and it continues to this day. The U.S. chapter of this worldwide story is both emblematic of these processes and singular in its own right.
When one speaks of Asian migrations to the United States one must underscore the diversity of these movements. Before World War II (1939–1945), Asian migration flows came from five major streams originating from particular regions in China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and India. After World War II, and especially after 1965 and 1975, Asian flows diversified to include South Asia and Southeast Asia. From the former came entrants from Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. From the latter came Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Thai contributors to modern Asian America.
The long roots of Asian migration can be traced as far back as 1763, when shipworkers from the Philippines, “the Manila men,” established themselves as a community in what is today Louisiana. Other pioneer Asian arrivals came earlier than the better-known migrations to California in the 1840s, and they showed up on the Atlantic Coast, not the Pacific. In 1785 a ship with a crew of “Chinese, Malays, Japanese, and Moors” arrived in Baltimore, and South Asians worked in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as indentured servants in the 1790s. By 1856 an estimated 150 Chinese lived in lower Manhattan in New York, working such jobs as sailors, ship workers, cooks, and stewards. These forgotten early Asian settlers on the Atlantic Coast preceded the Asians and Pacific Islanders who were lured to California by the gold rush of the late 1840s.
Chinese settlements produced political and social reactions in the United States, particularly in California after 1850. This agitation continued and grew in force until it culminated in the 1880s with Congress passing the first Chinese laborer suspension act, thus creating the Chinese exclusion system. From 1882 to 1904 the U.S. Congress passed at least seven major amendments that continued and amplified the Chinese exclusion statutory regime. Ostensibly promulgated to suspend Chinese laborer migration for a period of time, the laws had the overall social and legal effect of controlling the movements of Chinese-derived persons, both across the Pacific and across the United States.
Although exclusion was technically limited to the Chinese, the logic of the exclusion laws could be applied to other Asian immigrants and their communities. That logic found its most powerful expression in the legal idea of ineligibility for citizenship. Based on a judicial decision in 1879 that declared Chinese to be ineligible for U.S. naturalization, various federal judges applied the same racially based rule to other Asian groups and individuals. As a result, state governments barred persons ineligible to be citizens from owning property and pursuing a range of occupations. This logic was adopted by the Supreme Court in two decisions in 1922 and 1923 that successively denied U.S. naturalization to those of Japanese descent and those of “Hindu” or South Asian origins.
As exclusion grew, so did the territorial reach of the United States. When the United States made its foray as a world power after defeating Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, it asserted control over Spain’s former Pacific possession, the Philippine Islands, thus precipitating another stream of Asian migration. Filipinos moved to the United States to work in California agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s, or to take up university scholarships provided by the government. At the same time, exclusionary rules were being applied to Chinese living in the Philippines. In addition to the Philippines being included under Chinese exclusion, would-be migrants from other areas of the Pacific, East Asia, and the Near East fell under exclusionary bans inspired by the Chinese exclusion precedent. On February 5, 1917 the U.S. Congress banned the entry of aliens from a large segment of the world marked off as the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” an area that included Indochina, India, Burma, Thailand, the Malay States, the East Indian Islands, Asiatic Russia, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Arabia and Afghanistan. With the exception of teachers, merchants, and students, no one from the zone was eligible for U.S. entry
The U.S. involvement in World War II was a watershed era for all Asian-derived communities in the United States. Chinese exclusion came to a formal end in December 1943 when the U.S. Congress repealed it in an attempt to bolster China as a wartime ally. Korean Americans living in the United States, along with other Asian-derived Americans, joined the U.S. armed forces. Filipinos benefited from an improved public image due to their homeland’s resistance to the Imperial Japanese Army. During the war, South Asians were emboldened to seek U.S. citizenship rights, and both Filipinos and South Asians received U.S. naturalization rights in 1946. Although these communities gained from the U.S. involvement in the war, Japanese Americans were forcibly evacuated and interned. From 1942 until the war’s end, 110,000 Japanese who resided in Oregon, Washington, and California, most of whom were native-born U.S. citizens, were ousted from their homes and livelihoods on the U.S. west coast and sent to relocation camps in the country’s interior. This involuntary removal, unmatched in history in terms of its scale and scope, was in effect a mass incarceration.
After World War II, cold war immigration patterns reshaped both the United States and that of Asian America. Those patterns benefited from the halting yet persistent reform trends set in motion by the repeal of Chinese exclusion in the mid-1940s. Twelve years after the repeal, Congress enacted the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which brought forward the reform trends of 1943 to 1946 but also set new limits to Asian migration. The 1952 law allowed U.S. citizenship and naturalization for all Asian-derived individuals, thus removing a key disability, but it also replaced the Asiatic Barred Zone with the “Asia Pacific Triangle,” a provision that simultaneously provided new entry quotas for twenty Asian nations and stipulated an overall low ceiling on how many Asians were eligible to enter. It was not until the civil rights era that the most important immigration law to shape modern Asian Pacific America came to be. In 1965 Congress undid the restrictive immigration laws that had hampered non-Chinese Asian migration since 1917 by passing the Immigration Act of 1965, allowing for greater numbers of Asian immigrants. The act was passed at the juncture of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam. Ten years later, the U.S. military and political presence in Vietnam ended. In spring 1975 U.S.-backed regimes in Southeast Asia fell, thus inaugurating flows of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees to the United States. The diversity of Southeast Asian migrations from 1975 to 1980 and thereafter is as striking as any of the pre–World War II migration flows from Asia.
Although the mid-1960s saw civil rights and immigration reforms for Asian-derived communities, the same era also burdened all Asian Pacific American communities with a new stereotype—Asians as the “model minority.” On its surface this was an improvement over exclusion-era denigrations, but the “model minority” label actually obscures the lived realities of many Asian American individuals and communities by claiming that Asians have overcome all the barriers faced by exclusion-era Asians. Although the harshest aspects of exclusion have ended, and many Asian American communities and individuals have moved beyond the stereotypic urban niche occupations of laundry work, the model minority claim is really myopic. The label obscures and sidesteps the realities of Asian Pacific American experience: continued poverty; the historical and social conditions that privilege, in some Asian communities, the immigration of already trained professionals who enter more readily into middle-class positions; and the hidden costs of extra work and long hours that enable the middle-class attainments of home ownership and better education for children. Also kept out of view is the glass ceiling that limits and frustrates professional advancement. In the end, the model minority notion is never about actually lived Asian American lives; it is always about the conceit of holding onto beliefs that celebrate ideals about social mobility in the United States.
Asian migrations did not stop with the end of the cold war. The flow of people from every imaginable Asian starting point continues, and the vibrancy of Asian American communities throughout the United States is impressive. These contemporary Asian migrations build upon the legacies of earlier movements. Although separated by different historical experiences, these communities all share the legacy of persistence and survival that characterize the long sweep of Asian American history.
SEE ALSO Assimilation; Chinese Americans; Chinese Diaspora; East Indian Diaspora; Immigration; Incarceration, Japanese American; Japanese Americans; Model Minority; Politics, Asian-American; World War II
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Lai, Eric, and Dennis Arguelles, eds. 2003. The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press.
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