5th Day of the NEH Seminar: Assian Migration: Excusion and Discrimination

Today’s lecture was led by Prof. Madeline Y. Hsu of University of Texas. Widely known for her expertise in Asian immigration, particularly Chinese immigration, Prof. Hsu lectured on the historiography of Asian immigrants.

Prof. Hsu started her lecture with the fact that the notion of American nation-state was built on the premise of “who can’t become American,” not who wants or can become a citizen of this country. This led to a related discussion on laws and legislations built around this exclusionary idea.

The second part of Prof. Hsu’s discussion focused on the ethnicity and the problems that result the laws targeting the different ethnic groups. The melting pot and who can melt to become part of the citizenry started in late 18th century. The concept of melting pot was built on the assumption that only European nationalities leaving the old countries behind were the only group of people allowed to become part the “great race” of America.

The Asian immigration centered around the Pacific basin. Harnessing the natural forces of currents and seasonal winds in Pacific ocean, Chinese immigrants used boats to cross the breadth of Pacific ocean.

Unlike the traditional American migration to “Go West,” Asian immigrants moved from west to east. The significant thing in Asian immigration is the idea of the use of border control to exclude immigrants from coming the America. This took hold in late 1890s, precipitated by economic depression. In this period, the Chinese were portrayed as rat eating savages that would work for any wage thus lowering the leaving standard of working American. This resulted in the “draft riots” that subjected the Chinese immigrants to lynching and violence. In the same period, there was numerous political cartoons depicting Chinese workers as filthy, greedy and sub-human. This was perpetrated mostly by Irish who used to the exclusion of Chinese as a way to leverage their status and elevate them to a higher place in the race conscious America.

The first Chinese Exclusion law was passed in 1882. These laws, while serving expedience for local politicians, created a problems for the State Department as it affected their diplomatic engagements vis-a-vis with the government of China. The laws targeting Chinese also targeted other Asians such as Japanese which even created more problems as Japan was a world power at the time hence more diplomatic difficulties for State Dept.

Prof. Hsu noted that although the Chinese were marginal here in the US, their transnational life allowed them to attain higher status in their Chinese villages. And so while they were at the bottom of American society, the Chinese were considered as middle class in their societies.

The laws limiting Chinese from becoming citizens legislated Asians as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” even if they were born here in the United States. Chinese challenged this through courts but were unsuccessful save for few cases.  This category effectively barred Chinese from immigrating to the United States. The laws remained in effect until World War II when China and America became allies against Japan.  This resulted in the “Repeal of Exclusion” law in 1943. For Japanese, the exclusion was lifted in 1947 by the Congress. This fight against the exclusionary laws was led by Japanese American veterans who came from European theater of World War II. Their heroic service in the war allowed them to fight for more rights. Despite this, the laws against miscegenation were not repealed until 1967 by Supreme Court.

There was  a brief discussion by seminar participants focusing on the race dynamics between African Americans and Chinese and how these dynamics played out during the Civil Rights movement.  Prof. Hsu discussed how the class profile of Chinese community and that of Asians in general was affected by the immigration laws that dictate who can came and how the current policies give preference to immigrants who have certain skills in certain professions.

At 10:30am we broke for 10 minute break and came back for Q and A discussion.  The discussion focused on Wang Gungwu’s article on Chinese Sojourners in south east Asia. Sojourners is a new concept in migration studies. It describes people who like the Mexican Braceros of during and after World War II work on a short term basis in their host countries with the understanding of returning to their homeland.

How immigrants are seen as threats (in the context of Asians in South Asia)?

Prof. Hsu: sojourners could be useful because they alleviate the fears of locals because the notion that these sojourners are temporarily here makes their admission more likely.

Why people keep moving around or what keep immigrants move permanently. Prof. Kraut commented that sojourners maintain flexibility to move back and forth depending on the availability of jobs and economic up/down turns.  

Question I posed to Prof. Hsu: Do immigrants sometimes label themselves as sojourners not for political and economical reasons but for psychological reasons to maintain the hope and yearning for returning hope one day?

Prof. Hsu Delved into the economic aspects of migration and people’s movement. Others gave responses that elaborated the disconnection between sojourning as a romanticized exile mentality and the reality of immigrants, who for all practical proposes overwhelmingly remain here or any other place that these immigrants migrated to.

The discussion veered into the controversies over the terms that immigration historians use such as assimilation etc. Prof. Hsu invoked the book on this subject by Alpha Knees. I hope to check out this book someday.

Prof. Gary moved the group from the obsession with semantics and moved the debate to the core burning political issue: is immigration threat? If you’re living in Fuji, immigration is threat if you’re native. This made the debate more vigorous.

Prof. Torrie Hester asked how exclusionary immigration policies were used to raise the “image” of the concerned countries in late 19th century and early 20th centuries given that Mexican politicians used this argument as a reason for excluding Chinese immigrants. Prof. Kraut commented the fact that “border control” was always associated with the idea of modern nation state hence the exhortation by pundits i.e. Bill O’Really to call for building the wall and putting the US marines on the border to “CONTRON OUR BORDERS!” This is being discussed with vigor in the context of current immigration debate.

Last Question: There was no last question:

Two people joined us now: an elegantly dressed man who was introduced as former president of American Historical Association. His name is Roger. He gave spiel of his role in the creation of National History Center. … and wished us good luck.

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