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Study of Asian immigration reveals group distinctions, roots of 'Chinatowns'

STANFORD -- Asian American communities are a "patchwork of distinctive groups" made and remade by U.S. laws and conditions in their native lands, says Stanford University legal scholar Bill Ong Hing in the first thorough study of Asian immigration to the United States.

His study also is the first in-depth look at the effects of gender in creating the profiles of immigrant groups between 1850 and 1990. Exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws generally kept the ratio of Asian American men to women as high as 7-to-1 or higher and hampered family formation for all but Japanese Americans, Hing said, until less restrictive laws were passed after World War II.

"Now, more women are immigrating from Asia than men, a reversal of the historical trend," he said.

"Immigration and refugee policies have influenced gender ratios, where people live, how people live, the jobs they have, their income, as well as personal identity," Hing concludes in a new book, Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, published by Stanford University Press as part of a series on Asian America. Among his findings:

  • "Chinatown" and "Little Manila" enclaves were partly the result of gender imbalanced immigration for Chinese and Filipinos. Japantowns weren't as significant because Japanese male and female immigrants could form families as a social anchor.
  • Immigration laws often have unpredictable consequences. The 1965 immigration law, for example, was designed to promote European immigration but instead increased Asian immigration to nearly half the annual legal immigration total.
  • Asian America is not monolithic but composed of groups with differing personal identities and political and economic histories.

Six groups studied

Hing's book examines six communities - Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Asian Indians - who together are nearly 90 percent of the U.S. Census classification of Asian and Pacific Islanders. He traces each group's immigration and demographic history from 1850 to 1990.

Early immigrants were primarily male agricultural laborers, although the first large group - Chinese men - came to California in search of gold and were recruited to build the transcontinental railroads in the second half of the last century.

"Agricultural interests in Hawaii and the West Coast were behind much of the desire to allow each Asian group into the country," Hing writes. Each new group was welcomed, then rejected in a cyclic battle between American management and labor. Employers sought cheaper Asian labor, and American workers reacted, usually within a decade, with the political muscle to force local punitive laws and national exclusionary immigration and naturalization laws.

Exclusion of Asian women began in 1875. Then, in 1882 Congress passed a law excluding "idiots," "lunatics" and "Chinese laborers." Eventually a range of policies and laws restricted the entry of every Asian group, including (by 1934) Filipinos, who had begun the 20th century as U.S. nationals not subject to immigration law.

"The cumulative effect of state and local laws may have been as great as the federal exclusion laws," Hing writes. Local and state laws on the West Coast prevented Asians from undertaking businesses, owning property and, in San Francisco, from going to public school with other children.

Many immigrants planned to send for their families but were prevented from doing so, Hing said. "Families would have undermined the design for a rootless class of cheap and dependable laborers," Hing writes.

Chinese women were denied entry first, and miscegenation laws prohibited Chinese men from marrying others, which, Hing argues, led to "Chinatown" enclaves that could provide for the social needs of single men. The ratio of Chinese men to women was 14-to-1 in 1910 and still 7-to-1 in 1920. Seven-to-one was also the ratio of Filipino men to women in 1940.

Japanese immigrants were the only group to bring wives and children in any numbers before World War II. Because of the strength of Japan in the early 20th century, it was able to negotiate a more favorable "gentlemen's agreement" with the United States on immigration. Japanese women entered - some as "picture brides" - in exchange for a reduction in Japanese male immigration.

Japantowns were never as common or as large as Chinatowns, Hing said, primarily because the immigrants could form families and, at first, own or lease farmland.

Asian workers in general, however, were driven from rural areas to cities by job scarcity, land ownership restrictions and racial animus, Hing said. Today, most live in large cities or their suburbs, with more than half the population of all groups except Koreans and Asian Indians on the West Coast and in Hawaii. The largest concentration of Indians is in the northeast.

"Alien land laws and the prevention of family formation helped keep Asians in low-paid jobs," Hing said. "Asians were marginalized by encouraging enclaves in some quarters and were kept down politically by their migrant, non-citizen status, which kept them from establishing roots."

The difficulties most Asian immigrants encountered creating families might help explain strong family values in these communities, Hing said, although he hastily adds that he has not studied family patterns in other immigrant groups. Whenever laws provided the opportunity, Asian Americans have attempted to "make their families whole," through family-based immigration. As a result, none of the six groups he studied has a large gender imbalance today. Some communities - Filipinos and Koreans - now have more women than men.

Hing thinks Asian women will continue to immigrate in larger numbers than men because "the United States projects an image abroad not just of everybody wearing blue jeans and eating at McDonalds but of women's equality."

"Young professional women I've interviewed from Korea, Japan and Taiwan have convinced me equality was part of the impetus for their being willing to pick up and leave," he said.

Unity image erroneous

Most books and popular media convey an erroneous image of Asian America as a single group, Hing said.

"They focus on Chinese or Japanese Americans," he said. "I committed myself to writing about the six largest communities so that Asian Americans themselves and outsiders could see the diversity."

The image of a unified Asian America began during the civil rights era of the 1960s, he said, "when people from my generation wanted it to be that way."

"The truth is, most Asian Americans today are foreign born, which I am not," Hing said. "Their primary language is not English, and they think of themselves as, for example, Vietnamese, not American.

"I was surprised when I sent students out to interview immigrants that the Taiwanese they interviewed do not even think of themselves as Chinese first, but as Taiwanese."

Hing's book is a "significant contribution to immigration history and law . . . as well as a detailed study of gender and class status differences in Asian American groups," said Gordon Chang, a Stanford faculty member who teaches Asian American history and is overall editor of the Stanford Press series. Chang said his students have had difficulty locating the language of various immigration laws in books, so he asked Hing to add an appendix to his new book that collected in one place the relevant laws.

The 1907 "gentlemen's agreement" between the United States and Japan was the hardest to track down, Hing said.

"It turned out to be a series of cables exchanged by the U.S. secretary of state and Japan's foreign minister," he said. "One of my former students from Washington, D.C., Ruben Garcia, hunted around for it in the Library of Congress, because we hadn't seen the agreement printed anywhere else."

Recent demographic changes

While American immigration history is marked with intentional efforts to keep Asians out and to restrict their rights when admitted, Hing's study also shows that laws often have unintended consequences. No one in Congress or the White House in the mid-1960s, for instance, predicted that Asians would come to be 48 percent of legal immigration.

The Congressional record shows that the 1965 amendments, a major overhaul of U.S. immigration law, were intended to advance European immigration, Hing said, while at the same time removing quotas that clearly gave preference to white Europeans.

Yet, European immigration is now only about 12 percent of the total, despite further amendments passed in 1989 to provide Europeans with "transition visas" not available to Asians.

"We have never understood the limits of legally imposed control or the frequently unpredictable and sometimes paradoxical consequences of immigration policies and laws," he said.

One result of the 1965 amendments is that the Asian American population has increased from 1 million in 1965 to 7 million in 1990, with about 7 in 10 foreign born.

Japanese were the largest Asian American group in 1965, followed by Chinese Americans. Now Chinese are the largest, followed by Filipinos; and discernible Korean and Asian Indian communities have developed, along with Vietnamese who have come primarily as refugees. The total Vietnamese group most likely will outnumber Japanese by the year 2000, he said.

In addition, Laotians, Kampucheans, Thais, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Hmong, Samoans and Tongans are beginning to establish substantial U.S. communities, Hing said.

Personal experience with stereotypes

Hing began the study because he could find little information to back up stereotypes of Asian America. He had been curious to know more since his childhood in a second-generation Chinese American family in a predominantly Mexican town in Arizona.

"Where ours was one of only three Chinese families," Hing said, "I was constantly reminded of my own ethnicity and equated it with being 'Oriental.' My perceptions changed when a Chinese doctor and his Filipino wife moved to town when I was in high school. I was struck by the fact they were like me in some ways, yet not in others. The food they ate, the way they related to their children and the holidays they celebrated together underscored our similarities and differences."

While attending school at the University of California- Berkeley in the late '60s, Hing said he began to think of himself as part of a larger Asian American identity. Then he practiced law in San Francisco's Chinatown, where it was "natural to work with immigrants and with grassroots and community organizations whose members included friends and relatives."

He later directed a legal services support center, becoming involved in preparing future lawyers and paralegals for the special problems of immigrant clientele. He was named to the staff advisory group of the Carter administration's Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, and currently is on the advisory committee of the Immigration Policy Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

These experiences have been "disconcerting," he said, because they have made him aware of how most purported experts "seemed not even to understand that there are several Asian American communities, rather than some single, monolithic one. . . . And this lack of knowledge is shared by policy makers, scholars, Asian American activists and the popular media."

Also, he said, little attention is paid by immigrant advocates who work mainly with Latin Americans and Haitians.

"Their neglect troubles me because of the number of Asians who enter the United States for similar reasons and who face the same sort of difficulties," he said.

These include Filipinos who entered because of repression during the Marcos regime, and Chinese repressed because of their participation in the democracy movement.

Asian activists also "overlook the possibility that their constituencies may not compose a single community with identical aspirations, but a myriad of groups with agendas that sometimes conflict significantly," Hing said.

One stereotype of Asian America is that its members don't participate in politics because of cultural traits or historical disenfranchisement. Asian Americans participate on many levels of politics, Hing said, but they don't vote as a bloc.

"Their opinions on social and political issues are not monolithic," he said.

Another stereotype is that Asian Americans are super achievers in school.

"The generalized whiz-kid image varies within and between groups, casting doubt on simple cultural or class explanations for school performance," Hing said. "We have to realize there are many who get expelled from school."

Economic, educational, geographical differences

Hing's book points to many differences within and between groups. American-born Chinese, for example, are likely to have more education than the foreign born, whereas among Filipinos, the foreign born have more education. The proportion of Filipino American families below the poverty line is lower than that of white Americans, partly because of the large proportion of Filipino women immigrants in professional jobs, especially nursing.

The Korean American population is more scattered than others, and women outnumber men partly because of the Korean War, which led to many Korean military wives and adoptions by non- Koreans. Also, entrepreneurs in recent times have set up nursing schools in Korea to train women for U.S. hospital employment.

Japanese and Asian Indian Americans are the only two groups with average worker incomes above the American average, but the reasons are quite different. Japanese Americans are now largely U.S.-born and college educated. New, lower income immigrants have not come, partly because of Japan's economic success and partly because of the bitter legacy of World War II internment.

Indians were a small group before the war but have taken advantage of professional and investment categories in the 1965 immigration law. India has a higher rate of postsecondary education than its own job market can absorb.

Vietnamese refugees and recent Chinese immigrants are more likely than the other Asian groups to be poor. They are concentrated in low-paying service sectors.

Current immigration policy

National anxiety about the impact of Asian immigrants on the economy, Hing said, "smacks of scapegoating reminiscent of support for anti-Filipino legislation as a partial quick fix during the Great Depression."

Broader national economic and education policies would seem "better places on which to focus attention," he said. "Even though Asians are almost half the legal immigrants to the United States annually, they are less than 3 percent of the population."

Still, when Mexican, Central and South American immigration are combined with Asian immigration, as they are in California, he said, "identity and Americanization" become important regional issues.

National, state and local policy makers need a "more sophisticated understanding of communities - of the need for separate space - if we are to co-exist in a workable, culturally pluralistic society."

Reported conflict between Koreans and African Americans in south central Los Angeles last year has been mistakenly construed as ethnic conflict, he said, when class may play more of a role.

"The Korean merchants are there because of an immigration policy" that permits people to immigrate if they have $40,000 in capital to invest, Hing said. His data indicate that Korean immigrants, until very recently at least, have resources more comparable to middle-class African Americans who have moved up and out of south central Los Angeles than to their closest African American neighbors.

"The main criticism I have of immigration polices today is related to many of the skilled labor categories that we expanded in 1990 and plan to expand in the North American Free Trade Agreement," Hing said. "We say we need to bring in skilled workers at the same time our schools are deteriorating badly. I feel it's an insult - not just to African Americans but they feel a lot of it - when we bring in skilled people at the same time that we cut school funds."

Hing said he prefers a family-based immigration system, which better builds community than occupational categories.

"Relatives have to show they have a job offer; they can't go on welfare, so they are not a drain on the economy," he said.



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