Asian American Immigration: Family & Citizenship

Last year’s bustle around comprehensive immigration reform and subsequent push back against undocumented immigrants was simply another chapter in the long history of immigration in the United States. Immigration—whether in search of jobs or fleeing war—have been the main route that Asian settlers have set foot on mainland U.S. soil. State regulation of immigration and the decision of who was fit to be a citizen has resulted in the history of exclusion for Asian American immigrants. More recent increases in Asian American immigration, however, have also exposed more subtle exclusion based on gender and sexual orientation lines. Immigration has always been a tool of white heteropatriarchy and even today, through regulation of gender and sexuality, the system functions to reinforce the heterosexual middle-class nuclear family.

The history of Asian immigration to the United States has largely been that of immigration exclusion. Asian women were the targets of the 1875 Page Act, the “first federal legislation that defined citizenship in negative terms.”[1] The Page Act sought to block immigration of Asian women who were thought to be prostitutes, immoral beings capable of dismantling the white family through their sexual seduction of White men.

The Page Act was first of many racist laws that sought to hinder the immigration and citizenship process of Asians to protect the white nuclear family. After the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, there was the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement, which informally banned Japanese immigration, and the Immigration Act of 1924 that effectively banned all Asian immigration. It was not until 1952 that the Immigration and Nationality Act nullified federal immigration bans of Asians and allowed all Asians to gain citizenship in the United States.

Issues around Asian immigration and citizenship in particular has been heavily regulated throughout U.S. due to their perceived “foreign” status. At times, the xenophobia was rooted in economic reasons (i.e. Asians taking all the jobs) and at times, in a more fundamental distrust of all things foreign. Even today, this plays out on the micro-level. Many Asian Americans are confronted with the question of “Where are you really from?” which denies the person’s American roots and exemplifies our society’s inability to abandon its perception of “Asian” being mutually exclusive to “American.”

Today, there are over 18 million Asian/Asian American people in the United States, and Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the United States with a 46% increase between 2000 and 2010.[2] Especially considering that almost 3 out of 4 Asian adults are foreign-born, immigration is a relevant and important issue within the Asian American community. The next section will examine the current immigration reform movement and how it may be seeking a broad Asian American agenda at the expense of marginalized communities (i.e. LGBTQ, women) within the racial group.

From 1Love Movement & Southeast Asia Resource Action Center's petition
From 1Love Movement & Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s petition

2013 was an exciting year for immigrant rights organizations, as many believed the comprehensive immigration reform bill would be passed through Congress. Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 744) was drafted in April 2013 by the “Gang of Eight,” an all-male, largely white group of bipartisan senators in charge of drafting the immigration reform bill.

Under the current proposed bill, family reunifications would be severely cut to make room for employment-based visas, such as H1-B visas for high-skilled workers mainly in the STEM field. Currently, 70% of all H1-B visas go to men, and more than 70% of the high-skilled employment visas go to immigrants from Asia (U.S. Department of State).

Many Asian American organizations have supported the bill. However, seemingly beneficial to the American economy and the Asian American community, such a heavy emphasis on high-skilled visas such H-1B or INVEST would actually result in a narrowing and tailoring of the American Dream to fit the privileged few – mainly a wealthy, male population that originally had the resources to obtain an education or develop specialized skills. Selecting immigrants based on their “skills” or “education” would also disproportionately discriminate against women due to the existing worldwide gender discrepancy in education or employment opportunities for women.

However, the opposite push for increase in family reunification visas also has the danger of reproducing a heterosexual model of family, as the government does not federally recognize LGBTQ members. As Somerville writes in “Sexualized Aliens,” family reunification policies are the seemingly neutral ways to exclude the queer and other “unfit” community with “underlying blood logic,” much as they had been before.[3]

The contradictions that arise during the immigration reform debate for Asian Americans exemplify the importance of an intersectional perspective. It also calls for a vision beyond fitting hundreds and thousands of people through an increasingly narrowing door into the United States, and instead, addressing the imperialist political, economic, and military efforts abroad that push immigrants towards the promised land of America.

[1] Siobhan B. Somerville, “Sexual Aliens and the Racialized State: A Queer Reading of the 1952 U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act,” In Eithne Luibhed, Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship (University of Minnesota Press: 2005), 16.

[2] “Newsroom.” Facts for Features: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month: May 2013. (accessed February 19, 2014).

[3] Somerville, “Sexualized Aliens,” 85

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