Why Asian Americans Should Care About Immigration Justice

by Alex Chuang

CAST/HIST 260: Asian American History (Fall 2017)

The US Immigration system has long been one of exclusion and criminalization. Even under the Obama administration, hundreds of thousands of people with strong ties to the US were detained and deported for minor law violations. Recent policy changes under the Trump administration have only increased the threatening of the security, wellbeing, and livelihoods of immigrants in America. So far, we have seen the hiring of ten thousand more immigration enforcement officers; an Islamophobic travel ban, which limits the entry of Muslims; calls for Muslim registry; and the repeal of DACA, which plans to remove protected status for hundreds of thousands of current DACA recipients.

Although discourse around undocumented immigrants and immigration activism typically has centered immigrants from Mexico or Latin America, Black and Asian immigrants make up a significant number of the undocumented population in America. Still, discussions of immigrant rights seem to still be missing from conversation in Asian American communities, and there’s a widespread assumption that immigrant rights issues are unrelated to Asian Americans. A look at Asian American history shows us this this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Today’s oppressive immigration policies are founded on the exclusion of Asian Americans from American society. Furthermore, more recent developments of Asian American economic success and the model minority myth obscure the immigration issues Asians face in America and reinforce the oppression of Black and Brown undocumented immigrants. This is why we must understand the role of Asian Americans in American immigration history.

1. Asian Americans were some of the first undocumented immigrants

Anti-immigrant policies and discourse today in the US can be traced back to the exclusion of Asian immigrants and pervasive anti-asian xenophobia/violence during the second half of the 19th century. Asians in America were stereotyped by whites as sexually perverse, diseased, dirty, hyper fertile, promiscuous, predatory, foreign, unintelligent and overall inferior to whites. In addition, the influx of Asian laborers in low paying, low skill jobs resulted in the widespread fear of “yellow peril,” a concept that describes xenophobic anxieties of white lower-class workers that peg Asian immigrants as cheap laborers who steal jobs from deserving white americans. In result, organized anti-Asian movements, including white labor unions, arose to coordinate boycotts against Asian employment or business ownership. In addition, whites frequently violently attacked Asians and drove them out of towns. It is in this social context that the US implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

Reviewing the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act is particularly relevant to recent spikes in overt racialized xenophobia in the form of Islamophobic travel (immigration) bans, and xenophobic discourse on building a wall on the Mexican border. After a period of relatively open immigration policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act — which banned the entry of Chinese laborers for 10 years — marked the beginning of the US as a “gatekeeping nation” that used immigration laws to protect white nationhood and citizenship. Despite this law, Chinese did not stop coming to America; many of them entered “illegally.” Because Chinese who were the children of US citizens were exempt from the ban, many people used false documents to claim connection to already established families (“paper relatives”)in order to gain legitimate passage into the nation. While Chinese had been crossing borders and migrating throughout the continent for a long time, the creation of this law criminalized these acts of survival, further strengthening perceptions of Chinese as a threat. This history may sound familiar. The racial anxieties, fear of cheap labor stealing domestic jobs, and exclusionary, racist, xenophobic immigration policies that deem human beings “illegal” parallel today’s political landscape. The main difference is that the subjects of this exclusion have expanded to include Black and Latinx immigrants. As Asian Americans, we need to recognize that the history of US policies was founded in anti-asian sentiment. The racism and xenophobia directed at undocumented immigrants today is not a creation of the recent future, but has been a staple of United States discourse and national identity since the Chinese Exclusion Act.

2. Asians were exploited for cheap labor to power global capitalism, just as undocumented immigrants are now.

Undocumented immigrant labor in the US is fundamental to the functioning of the global capitalist system. The huge influx of immigrants into the US is directly tied to the rise of the “neoliberal counterrevolution,” free trade agreements, and the US meddling with foreign governments/economies have exacerbated economic instability into former colonized nations. As a result, hundreds of millions of people have been displaced and come to the United States in search for more lucrative livelihoods to support their families. This flow of immigrants has become an endless pool of laborers who face the constant threat of deportation, thus making undocumented immigrants vulnerable to exploitative employers and unsafe working conditions (Robinson).

The constant supply of bodies for cheap labor has always been a part of the capitalist model. It can be traced to the transatlantic slave trade — in which millions of Africans were enslaved and taken to the Americas for plantation labor — the exploitation and enslavement of indigenous peoples within the Americas, and Chinese coolie labor in the nineteenth century. The coolie trade emerged out of the decline of African slavery during the rise of emancipation and abolition movements. Coolies were laborers imported from China or India who were coerced into working as indentured laborers in various locations in the Western Hemisphere. Coolies were contracted to work, which allowed them to be marketed as free labor. However, coolies were often kidnapped, tricked or forced into these contracts labored in conditions comparable to those of African slavery. In addition, on the ship ride to their new destinations,coolies were locked in airtight holdings for months, suffered from various diseases such as scurvy, and many tried to commit suicide. Coolie labor never became popular in the United States, although many American ships participated in the trade by transporting coolies between China and Cuba from 1843.

Asians immigrants continued to have a significant role in American labor following the peak of the coolie trade. In particular, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos, as well as Puerto Ricans and Portuguese, made up a major labor source in Hawaiian sugar plantations in the nineteenth century. Asian laborers were paid very little and were viewed as commodities by employers, who had the main goal of turning Hawaii into an American economic colony. Thus, the exploitative, cheap Asian labor has played a huge role in the development of the American nation. While Asians appear to be removed from the discussion on undocumented immigration and undocumented labor in the US, this history clearly shows us that America has exploited all sorts of racial groups in efforts of capitalist production. Given this, Asian Americans have a responsibility to Asian laborers of the past and present, as well as all contemporary undocumented immigrant laborers, to resist the capitalist and neoliberal system which creates these cycles of displacement, migration, and exploitative labor in the name of profit.

3. The Immigration act that brought the majority of Asian immigrants to America was the same act that led to mass undocumented immigration.

The law that initiated the current era of mass undocumented immigration was prompted by America’s Cold War desires to import Asian immigrants. The United State’s anti-communist platform strived to counter communist propaganda that criticized American racism by embracing a model of liberal inclusion that rejected racism and positioned America as a beacon of democracy and freedom. However, these liberal ideologies only served to strengthen correlations between American national citizenship and whiteness, and furthermore allowed the federal government to justify or erase realities of United States imperialism and state sanctioned violence.

Lyndon B Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965

It was in this context in which the Hart Cellar Act was created. In addition to an agenda of multiculturalism, the United States was interested in advancing itself as a nation of educated, skilled, scientific professionals in order to compete with the Soviet Union. The act raised immigration quotas to one number for all nations, and included a preference system which gave priority to reuniting families and letting in skilled professionals. This immigration trend has shifted the Asian American population, bringing in more and more whole families and skilled professionals. The drastic change of immigration caused by the Hart Cellar Act served to create the appearance of Asian American success, socioeconomic mobility, and assimilation. Furthermore, because the act established the same quotas for every country, larger countries or countries with closer ties to United States had long backlogs of people who wanted to immigrate. As a result of this system, more and more people were forced to immigrate illegally into the country. This part of history further demonstrates that the lives of Asians in America are not separated from the realities of undocumented immigrants. We are all caught up in the white supremacist agendas in the nation. Asians were used as part of a Cold War agenda of liberal multiculturalism and technical advancement, while simultaneously, immigration policy pushed immigrants to illegally immigrate and live extremely unstable, unprotected, and dangerous lives.

4. The government used insidious methods to deport Chinese undocumented immigrants.

During the early cold war era, heightened anti-communist paranoia prompted the return of anti-Chinese xenophobia in the form of the Chinese Confession Program. Fears that Chinese communists were behind a giant, secretive network that imported Chinese and Chinese communist spies illegally into the US prompted the INS to launch Chinese Confession Program in the late 1950s. The program offered Chinese immigrants pathways to legal status if they confessed that they had entered illegally and named every relative and friend that had done the same. However, the program was never official, and thus the promises that the program made to confessors for legalization weren’t kept. Out of those whose immigration status was exposed as a result of the program, most stayed in the country. However, a number of people involved in suspicious activity (in regards to the government’s anti-communist paranoia) were deported to Hong Kong. Some people were also banned from sponsoring any family members who wanted to immigrate to America in the future.

example of “paper son” document

The Chinese Confession program demonstrates that the characterization of undocumented immigrants as subversive, suspicious, and criminal isn’t unique to the contemporary moment. Like the Chinese Exclusion Act was a precedent for the xenophobic immigrant exclusion that has characterized America since the 1880s, the Chinese Confession Program has preceded the era of crimmigration. In the 1980s, a number of federal policies increased the criminal enforcement of immigration violations and expanded the grounds for immigrants — both legal and undocumented — to be deported. In the following years, Congress continued to criminalize immigration to the point where almost any criminal conviction of non-citizens would result in deportation. Under Trump, crimmigration has only intensified and continues to threaten the security of undocumented immigrants.

5. The model minority myth perpetuates the criminalization and oppression of black and brown undocumented immigrants.

In the years following World War II, Asian Americans made huge strides in terms of residential and economic mobility, electoral politics, and recognition in literature. In this context, the model minority myth arose around the 50s and 60s, with the primary purpose of solving both the “Japanese Problem” and the “Negro Problem.” After the shameful internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during WWII, the United States — wanting to display itself as a democratic, inclusive, and liberal society in opposition to the Communists — rushed to redeem itself. With these motives, journalists, academics, activists, and politicians published series’ of “recovery narratives” that promoted the idea that formerly interned Japanese American families were quickly integrating and rising up the socioeconomic level. In addition, the Japanese American Claims Act of 1948, gave families reparations to help them regain what was lost during internment. While the money was not nearly enough, it accomplished the goal of making the US government seem apologetic, democratic, and humanitarian. This, of course, was not the case at all; the relative Japanese economic success during this period contrasts with pervasive poverty and inequality in Black communities. In order to justify the systematic oppression of Black Americans and counter Black-led movements for justice, the government valorized this Japanese “recovery” in contrast to Black poverty and promoted the idea that black culture and attitudes were to blame. The construction of the Japanese as an assimilable, hardworking, “model minority” in comparison to unruly, undeserving Black people, applies to other Asian ethnic groups as well.

From “The State of Black Immigrants”

Today, the model minority is just as strong and pervasive. For black immigrants, the impacts of the model minority and anti-black racism in America are intensified. It’s a well known fact that Black people are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated by the criminal enforcement system. What’s worse is the fact that the federal government prioritizes the deportation of undocumented immigrants with criminal record. Undocumented immigrants with drug-related convictions are the most targeted by ICE agents. Given this, it’s clear that Black undocumented immigrants are even more vulnerable in the face of criminalization. A study by The State of Black Immigrants found that Black immigrants make up 5.4% of the undocumented population in the US, yet made up 10.6% of immigrants in removal proceedings from 2004–2015. To uphold the model minority myth as Asian Americans means actively supporting this process of criminalization and deportation. We must resist the model minority myth and challenge all of the ways anti-blackness manifests itself in America.

6. Trump’s Travel Ban and call for a Muslim Registry threatens a repetition of the injustice of Japanese internment

Former internees commemorate the 75th anniversary of Japanese Internment. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Trump’s campaign and presidency has brought back the potential of the repetition for past histories of violence and injustice. On December 4th, 2017, the Supreme Court approved the third iteration of Trump’s travel ban, an executive order that limits the travel of citizens from eight countries, six of which are predominantly Muslim, to the United States. During his campaign, Trump additionally called for a Muslim registry, in which a database would track all Muslims in America. Special registration programs are not new to to the United States: during World War II, Japanese Americans were also subjected to a special registration program. This led to the mass incarceration of Japanese in America. The War on Terror and rampant Islamophobia that labels Muslims as terrorists parallels the stereotypes and paranoia that characterized Japanese as subversive, disloyal, or potential spies during the WWII. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, government officials were convinced that Japanese Americans were prepared to assist a Japanese invasion on the West Coast. Despite investigations that concluded that Japanese in Hawaii took no part in the attack, increasing paranoia led to a dismissal of the unconstitutionality of incarcerating Japanese citizens. FDR eventually decided that winning the war was worth violating Japanese rights through internment. FDR signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which prompted the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast. When internees were released, many Japanese Americans had lost their businesses and had to struggle to rebuild their lives. The dignity, rights, and livelihood that the federal government stripped from Japanese Americans have similarly been threatened for Muslims in our post 9/11 world.

7. Cambodian refugees are being deported.

On October 17, 2017, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center published a press release revealing that over 100 Cambodian refugees had been detained and faced possible deportation. The report details that detainees were refugees who had arrived in the US at a young age and were charged with criminal offenses before they could naturalize. The deportation of Cambodians represents a continuation of state-sanctioned violence on Cambodians. During the Vietnam War, the United States played an integral role in inciting the events leading up to the genocide of Cambodians in the Khmer Rouge regime. This included an undercover bombing campaign on countries bordering Vietnam, and the support of a right wing coup in Cambodia. Despite the United States’ public condemnation of the rising Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary communist group in Cambodia, the US’ actions played a huge role in garnering support for them. The era from 1975 to 1979 is known as the zero years, or the killing fields era, in which 1.7 million Cambodians were killed in the Khmer Rouge regime. Without mentioning their own part in creating this situation, the US government established refugee resettlement programs to accept Southeast Asian refugees into the nation in a “humanitarian” act. However, resettlement programs were generally conservative, sought to assimilate refugees into the American mainstream, and pushed refugees to become economically self-sufficient so that they would be able to get off of welfare. Cambodians were also often resettled in the inner cities with little welfare support. The intense poverty that came with resettlement and neoliberal welfare policies has resulted in the criminalization of Cambodian refugees and youth.

Minneapolis protest against deportation of Cambodian refugees. (Fight Back! News / Staff)

The United States continued its front on Cambodian refugees in 2002, when the government coerced Cambodia into agreeing that the US could deport Cambodians with aggravated felonies back to Cambodia. Many of these refugees had been born in Thai refugee camps, had never lived in Cambodia, or barely remembered the country. Although this policy was made fifteen years ago, it clearly still threatens the lives of Cambodian refugees today. A common perception among Asians who have American citizenship is that Asian American issues are unrelated to those of undocumented immigrants or immigrant injustice. The detainment of Cambodians in the past few months urges Asian Americans to see past this assumption and realize that undocumented and immigrant issues are intertwined with Asian American issues. In fact, Asians are the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants. In order to fight for a just immigration system and for the rights of undocumented immigrants, we must understand that US immigration policies have a massive effect of people in the Asian American community.

8. Asian Americans have known for a long time that all struggles for justice are connected. We must resist together.

Yellow Peril — Oakland, California — 1969

Why have Asian Americans often been perceived as the most silent on social issues like anti-blackness and immigrant rights? The “apolitical” nature Asian Americans is connected to the construction of Asian Americans as forever foreign and model model minorities (silent and obedient). This is used to pit racial groups against each other and take away the potential for protest and resistance. Despite this, Asian Americans have been resisting these racializations for a long time. Asian Americans were a vital part of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student movement originating at San Francisco State University in 1968. The TWLF was a coalition of Black, Latinx, Asian, and other students who orchestrated one of the longest student strikes in history, demanding the creation of an Ethnic Studies program. Not only did students organize in solidarity across racial lines, but they understood themselves, as people of color in America, to be inherently tied to the struggles of colonized people globally, through histories of imperialism and Western colonization. In this era, leftist radicals also began to incorporate an analysis of intersectionality into their organizing — that the oppression of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, etc are all connected. Asian organizing was largely influenced by the Black left; for instance, the Black Power movement inspired the emergence of Asian American Nationalism and “Yellow Power,” which aimed to assert the self determination and collective power of Asian Americans. These movements were ultimately successful: the TWLF strikes resulted in the establishment of a College of Ethnic Studies at SF state and a number of other institutions. This is a history of Asian American activism that we should be proud of. Even before the 60s, Asian Americans were resisting, and they have continued resisting until today. That being said, we must continue to learn from the actions of past Asian American activists. The Third World Liberation Front remains a powerful period in history which reminds us that the struggles and liberation of all oppressed people are intertwined.

Asian American issues are not at all separated from issues of immigrant rights. This history tells us that Asian narratives and perspectives are integral for the formation of an intersectional coalition of immigrant justice activists. It is our responsibility to challenge the model minority myth and reconnect to the painful history of Asian exclusion in this country. It is our responsibility to speak out for immigrant justice.


Aziz, Sahar. “A Muslim Registry: The Precursor to Internment?.” (2017).

Lee, Shelley Sang-Hee. A New History of Asian America. Routledge, 2013.

Robinson, William I., and Xuan Santos. “Global capitalism, immigrant labor, and the struggle for justice.” Class, Race and Corporate Power 2, no. 3 (2014): 1.

Stumpf, Juliet P. “The crimmigration crisis: Immigrants, crime, and sovereign power.” (2006).

Tsu, Cecilia M. ““If You Want to Plow Your Field, Don’t Kill Your Buffalo to Eat”: Hmong Farm Cooperatives and Refugee Resettlement in 1980s Minnesota.” Journal of American Ethnic History 36, no. 3 (2017): 38–73

Wu, Ellen D. The color of success: Asian Americans and the origins of the model minority. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Tang, Eric. Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto. Vol. 171. Temple University Press, 2015

Kim, Claire Jean. “The racial triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): 105–138



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.