Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990
1993 will be remembered as the year in which immigration became the focus of national debate—a debate that is heating up in 1994. While sustained public conversation about immigration is long overdue, much of the outpouring of opinion is unproductive, consisting as it does of assertions that immigration is essentially “good” or “bad,” often buttressed by statistics that purportedly show how much money immigrants put into the economy and how much they take out of it.
For a contrast to these simplistic statistical duels, see Bill Ong Hing’s MAKING AND REMAKING ASIAN AMERICA THROUGH IMMIGRATION POLICY, 1850-1990. Asian Americans have traditionally been relegated to the periphery in overviews of immigration history. Hing shows that in fact they belong at the center of the story. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from entry to the United States for a period of ten years, was the first legislation to exclude a group from entry on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. Anti-Asian sentiment fueled the passage of subsequent legislation that culminated in the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which set U.S. immigration policy for forty years. And when the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act overturned the racially biased national origins system, the single most significant consequence was a dramatic increase in Asian immigration.
While Hing’s focus is on Asian Americans, he provides what amounts to a short course in U.S. immigration policy in detailing how the distinctive demographics of the various Asian American communities—Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, and smaller groups as well—have been shaped by policies only rarely based on adequate knowledge of the people whose lives would be affected by them. Along the way he presents evidence that challenges a number of widely held notions (see for example his discussion of Asian Americans and electoral politics); repeatedly he stresses the need for more empirical research. The result is a major contribution to our understanding of Asian Americans in the 1990’s.