How did we get here?

Just look at America's immigration policies over the last 150 years

I am exhausted.

To be a woman in America is tiring enough—but to also be an Asian woman in America can be so emotionally taxing. Where we lament seeing so few woman in leadership positions, particularly in media, tech, and hospitality, we barely see any Asian Americans, let alone female, holding such titles.

And to have my identity be rooted in not being born in the U.S., I am constantly at odds with a system that cannot see past the colour of my skin, and acknowledge the right that I have to be here: first as a student, then as a working professional, and now as a permanent resident. Instead, I am consistently met with surprise when I say I am from Canada and then have to dance around the awkward insinuation of “where are you really from?”

I have been exhausted for years.

I was exhausted when I realized I was not safe in a place that should’ve protected me the most: the student health center at my college. To not be listened to by my assigned nurse practitioner—who also proceeded to falsify my patient history (which has larger repercussions since thee are records accessible by other practitioners at N.Y.U.)—is most certainly harmful, but to also be on the receiving end of assumptions and disparaging racial remarks is devastating. Perhaps the most unsolicited and baseless remark to date was: “Koreans smile when they’re angry.” I’m not Korean, and I never said that I was.

I was exhausted when I witnessed nobody would come to my defense at an East Village eatery when a man berated me to go back where I came from and that my kind was not welcome. Among a queue of ten people and fifteen seated diners, not one person intervened when I made attempts to defend myself and articulate that I was from Canada. The most support I got was when I dropped the argument and a woman simply said: “Don’t mind him. He’s old.” That is an easy statement to make when you know that you will never have to hear it about yourself.

I was exhausted when my USCIS interviewer greeted me with: “Leung. Canada? Oh. By your name, I thought you’d be another China case.” To have to grin and bear the next hour of passive aggressive remarks by someone that determined my fate in the country wasn’t so much swallowing bitterness, as it was just having to eat shit with a smile on my face.

All of this pain that I have outlined above as examples of what Asian Americans have had to endure wasn’t created overnight. The previous Administration’s mishandling of the pandemic merely exposed the hypocrisy of the “American dream” and the country’s underpinnings of systemic racism against Asian Americans.

We have been throwing ourselves at a system that has been designed to fail us since day one. How can you trust a government that has spent almost 150 years crafting iterations on laws to keep them from building a future here?

The many versions of: “We Don’t Want Your Kind Here”

If you want to see how far back America goes in terms of attempting to preserve a homogeneous population, we can take a look at 19th century immigration policies right on through to those of the 20th century.

The Page Act of 1875

For those that have been following Twitter, you’ll have seen several references made to the Page Act of 1875 as it pertains to the U.S.’ historical attitude towards Asian women. Passed during the 43rd session of Congress, the law was enacted under the guise of preventing prostitutes from migrating to the U.S. But in reality, it was a law that was aimed at keeping Chinese women from entering the U.S. This policy wasn’t so much a restriction on labour categories as it was the first explicit restriction on race.

The specific clauses as it pertains to women read as follows:

That in determining whether the immigration of any subject of China, Japan, or any Oriental country, to the United States, is free and voluntary… it shall be the duty of the consul-general or consul of the United States residing at the port… to ascertain whether such immigrant bas entered into a contract or agreement for a term of service within the United States, for lewd and immoral purposes…

SEC. 5. That it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely… women "imported for the purposes of prostitution." Every vessel arriving in the United States may be inspected… if he shall have reason to believe that any such obnoxious persons are on board… importation is hereby forbidden.

While the law was presented as a way to restrict involuntary “importation”—let’s note the objectifying word choice—it was only heavily enforced against Chinese women. This policing of immigrants on the basis of sexuality was, as we note in the clause above, at the consul-general or consul’s discretion. There was no actual criteria or rubric to follow.

Let’s make no mistake that the adjudications of Chinese women as prostitutes was happenstance. During the Seventh Annual Message to the U.S. Senate and House of Representations, President Ulysses S. Grant made the motivation and false equivocation of this law clear:

While this is being done I invite the attention of Congress to another, though perhaps no less an evil--the importation of Chinese women, but few of whom are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.

Not only are Chinese women objectified by the 1875 law, but the President, who spoke in December of that year, saw little value in their lives. And we see this objectifying and demonizing rhetoric again when Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker said of the Atlanta shooter: “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction … it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Let me be clear: Asian women are not objects; Asian women are not a “temptation”; Asian women are not something to “eliminate.”

Immigration Act of 1882 (The Chinese Exclusion Act) and its 1943 repeal

Known as the first and only major federal legislation to outright suspend immigration for a specific ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act and its amendments remained in full force until it was repealed in 1943 with the Magnuson Act.

The act barred all Chinese labourers from entering the United States for period of ten years (which was first renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and then made permanent in 1902). Further, it was noted that Chinese immigrants would be ineligible for naturalization. Two categories were exempted from the ban: merchants and students. Beginning in 1915, restaurant owners qualified under the merchant category, hence why there was a rapid growth of Chinese restaurants in America in the early 20th century.

What the Geary Act introduced in 1892, apart from an extension of the ban, was the requirement that all Chinese immigrants had to possess “certificates of residence” ("and “certificates of identity after the McCreary amendment) that served as proof of legal presence in the U.S. These pieces of identification had to be carried at all times, or otherwise risk arrest, followed by punishment via hard labour and deportation. The burden of proof was put on the shoulders of Chinese immigrants, and served as a means for the U.S. to both exercise control over a group of people and create opportunities to rid of them.

While the Magnuson Act repealed The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, it did little to promote immigration. The lift on the ban served more as a political tool than anything else, on account of the fact that the U.S. and China were allies in World War II. When I say that it did little to promote immigration, it is because the Magnuson Act’s annual quotas allowed for a maximum of 105 Chinese nationals to immigrate to the U.S. Yes, I said that correctly: one hundred and five people per year.

How did we get arrive at that number? Well, this figure of 105 was said to have been determined by the Immigration Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas at 2% of the U.S. population from the emigrants’ country recorded in the 1890 census. However, if you look at the number of Chinese persons in the U.S. in 1890, that population was recorded at 105 465. 2% of that 105 465 is not 105 persons. Had U.S. Representative Magnuson followed through with the 2% logic, the immigration quota would have been set at 2109 Chinese emigrants annually .

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act)

Most notable with regards to the McCarran-Walter Act was its abolishment of the “alien ineligible to citizenship” category. And yes, this category, in practice, only applied to people of Asian descent.

Unfortunately, annual quotas of 100 immigrants per country were set forth for Asian countries noted in the “Asiatic barred zone” (the Immigration Act of 1917). For an added layer of restriction, there was another quota, which capped immigration at 2000 persons annually from the aforementioned zone.

Also, people of Asian descent who were citizens of a non-Asian country still counted toward the quota of their ancestral Asian country. With laws such as these, it comes as no surprise then that the “where you really from?” question is so pervasive in American discourse.

Even though people of Asian descent could now become eligible for citizenship, immigrating to the U.S. from Asia was still frowned upon what with such restrictive and dehumanizing policies.

Where we do stand today?

The Hart-Cellar Act (i.e. the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) is the set of immigration provisions that are still in practice today. The most notable update from the McCarran-Walter Act, though, is the elimination of the national origins quotas that I described above.

Setting up the foundation for present-day immigration, a seven-category preference system was created with priority for relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as priority for professionals with specialized skills.

On that note, though, the immigration system in the U.S. still awards permanent residency by still placing emphasis on “country of origin” (i.e country of birth), as opposed to citizenship. It’s no surprise that so much of the general public has an obsession with asking “where are you really from” when the country’s own immigration system cannot fathom that where one was born does not equate with one’s nationality. To the American immigration system, it is still so much one and the same.

And quotas are also still very much a thing, but in a different form. Per my post about the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, each “country of origin” is allotted 7% of the annual distribution of green cards, which is to say that countries that have a lot of folks immigrating to the U.S. end up in a backlog of 5–10 years per the latest visa bulletin. The implication here, particularly for those that are on an employer-based route, is that sponsee is potentially tied to their employer for almost a decade— a modern day version of indentured servitude. And as it turns out, the folks most affected with regards to employment-based cases are those born in China and India.

Yes, the sponsee can change jobs to a different company via portability if on an H-1B, but if you are on an employer-based green card, the petition is based on the job for which you are sponsored. If you change jobs and have to go in to interview for your green card petition, you may be asked why did you leave your employer if the employer is sponsoring you for a job at their company. And even if you have an otherwise airtight petition, the slightest doubt at the USCIS officer’s discretion can cause disarray and subsequently require more time and paperwork.

Immigration policies have been restrictive to Asian Americans in the mid- to late-19th century and still are almost 150 years later. The system has simply masked its continued disdain for us—Asian Americans and/or immigrants—with different rules and laws, all the while telling us that this country is the land of hopes and dreams. And perhaps it is, but they weren’t talking to us.

Further reading:

Watch and listen:

The House Committee on the Judiciary convened yesterday to discuss the rising discrimination and violence against Asian Americans. If you did not have a chance to watch the panel live, I’d suggest you to watch it now and listen to Asian American Members of Congress and immigration and academic experts in the field on their own personal experiences, how history led us here, and what needs to be done.

Organizations and initiatives to support: