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Asian-American Families

Varied Immigration Histories

The immigration of Asians to America can be divided into several distinct waves prompted by different political events. Early Asian immigrants provided cheap labor for the Hawaiian sugar plantations and California factories and fruit growers. Japanese laborers were listed along with supplies (bonemeal, canvas, macaroni) and "Chinamen" on company purchase orders (Takaki 1989). Chinese were imported as cheap contract labor, as coolies, and as strikebreakers to replace white workers (Chow 1998). The hope of finding gold in California, striking it rich, and returning to their Asian homeland became unrealistic goals upon arriving in the West. Chinese men outnumbered women and the lack of marriageable Chinese women created a lucrative market for prostitution, until immigration of single women was barred in the 1850s (Chow 1998). The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act established a European racial preference for immigration, thus eliminating the development of Chinese-American families and the growth of their communities in the United States.

The 1908 Gentleman's Agreement with Japan restricted immigration of laborers, but a loophole allowed entry of parents, wives, and children of those already in the United States, thus influencing the rise of picture brides from Japan and Korea (Takaki 1989). The Picture Bride System was a modification of the arranged marriages by families or professional go-betweens. In these arranged marriages, sometimes older bachelors would send pictures of themselves as younger men, and when young brides-to-be arrived in the United States, they found their husbands-to-be nothing like what they expected. Sometimes the women refused to marry them. Some women became picture brides not only out of filial duty, but also as a strategy to start a new life for themselves (Hune 2000). Picture brides tended to be better educated than their husbands, and by the time the practice was curtailed in 1920, there were almost 30,000 American-born children from these marriages (Chan 1991). The 1945 War Brides Act allowed GIs to reunite with their Asian wives, which brought more immigrants to the United States. But it was not until the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 that race was eliminated as a category for immigration (Takaki 1989).

Early Filipino immigrants were predominantly male students, pensionados, or those individuals sponsored by the territorial government, and those who chose to remain became unskilled laborers because they could not become naturalized citizens. The Immigration Act of 1965 gave preference to, in order: (1) unmarried children of U.S. citizens; (2) spouses and children of permanent residents; (3) professionals and scientists or artists of exceptional ability; (4) married children of U.S. citizens; (5) brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens; and (6) skilled and unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in short supply. But most important for Asian families, the exemptions, for which there was no numerical limit, included: spouses of U.S. citizens, children (under twenty-one) of U.S. citizens, and parents of U.S. citizens (Ng 1998). This facilitated chain migration of Filipinos joining other family members between 1966 and 1970.

Migrations of highly educated Asians began in the 1960s. Between 1972 and 1988, approximately 200,000 Asians with training in the science-based professions entered the United States from the four major sending countries. Engineers and physicians came primarily from India, health practitioners from the Philippines and Korea, and scientists from China (Ng 1998). East Indians were the wealthiest, most highly educated, and most English-proficient of the Asian immigrants (Bacon 1996). As professionals with middle- and upper-class occupations, this group contributed to the stereotypic myth of the "model minority" who have assimilated and produced well-educated, high-achieving offspring.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, and the communist victory in Indochina, the Orderly Departure Program was established to facilitate the removal of refugees to the "first-asylum" countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These camps began to overflow with refugees from Vietnam and Laos (including the Hmong), and the Khmer from Cambodia (Suhrke 1998). The U.N. Convention and clauses from the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act defined who counted as a refugee and eventually resulted in either repatriation or settlement in the United States providing there were sponsors. Settlement patterns in the United States led to the dispersal of 130,000 first-wave refugees (1975) throughout the country. The second wave of refugees (1981) were predominantly family-reunification cases sponsored by relatives (Ng 1998).

The nationwide dispersal and diffusion of Indochinese refugees mirrored the governmental dispersion of Japanese Americans from internment camps after World War II, using the same rationale of preventing ethnic enclaves and not overburdening any single locale (Chan 1994; Zhou and Gatewood 2000). Ironically, the refugees came to the United States for political freedom and asylum, while the Nisei evacuees, citizens by birth, were denied their constitutional rights, though they eventually received an apology and reparations in 1988 (Takaki 1989). The effects upon families and ethnic communities due to this dispersion contributed to the diversity of experiences of Asian-American groups. Japanese-American families in the Midwest tended to transform their culture (Adler 1998), while the Hmong relied upon secondary and tertiary migration to reunite families and clans (Chan 1994). Secondary migration brought many Indochinese to California, settling in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, and in the Silicon Valley of San Jose. The dispersement of Hmong and Cambodians to frostbelt locations in northern states required major adjustment to a climate different from that of Asia.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAsian-American Families - Varied Immigration Histories, Family Structures And Gender Roles, Religion And Cultural Values, Regional And Generational Differences