Editor’s Note: In the next few months, the blog will be featuring contributions by this year’s IEHS award winners to give our readers a sense of ongoing scholarship debates in Immigration and Ethnic History and related fields.
Scholarship on immigration and ethnic history has tended to emphasize the particular histories of ethnic communities, including assessments of the structural discriminations and advantages shaping patterns of integration and disadvantage. During the past two decades, transnational perspectives have complicated such domestic focus by highlighting multidirectional migrations and ongoing if evolving relationships to relatives and communities left behind. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015) further intervenes in immigration history by tracking the overlooked influence of international relations on immigration laws, administrative practices, and agendas. This approach enabled me to write into Asian American Studies subjects traditionally excluded as temporary migrants whose stories bore little relevance for research which emphasized immigrants who sought permanent settlement and integration. By focusing on students, and specifically Chinese who were the first targets of systematically enforced immigration controls starting in 1882, The Good Immigrants highlights the many constituencies and conflicting priorities that intersect at the site of immigration restrictions.
Through 1965, U.S. immigration policy emphasized race and national origin as the primary criteria for legal immigration and citizenship to impose significant barriers against immigration from most parts of the world except western and northern Europe. In contrast to such exclusionary and hostile agendas, constituencies concerned for maintaining foreign relations and advocates for restricted groups emphasized the need to maintain connections through migration. World War II and the Cold War compelled national priorities to shift to the latter set of goals, although permanent immigration reforms were delayed until 1965. During this transition, Chinese students and intellectuals played key roles in underscoring the liabilities of using racial criteria to determine which immigrants contribute the most to strengthening the national interests of the United States. Considering that this select group included individuals of such outstanding accomplishment such as I.M. Pei and An Wang, the willingness of Congress and many influential Americans to facilitate their permanent settlement is entirely understandable.
Missionaries, educators, and internationalist advocates of cultural exchange for the purposes of advancing world peace and U.S. influence abroad had recruited Chinese to study in the United States as early as the 1820s, with such programs becoming increasingly institutionalized with the first government allocation of funding in 1908. War turned these already sympathetic students into refugees in need of permanent homes whose abilities and obvious compatibilities with Americans demonstrated the failings of racially restrictive immigration laws. When key talents, as occurred in the case of Qian Xuesen who founded China’s rocket program, would otherwise turn to the communist world, such laws clearly contravened U.S. national interests. After falling under poorly grounded suspicions as a communist sympathizer and being stripped of security clearances and barred from conducting research, the U.S.-educated, naturalized citizen Qian accepted the invitation of the People’s Republic of China to return and help his homeland become strong. Such “knowledge workers” were gaining value during the Cold War which pitted the United States against the Soviet bloc in their heated competition for supremacy in space and military supremacy.
Seeking common ground with conservatives, immigration reformers developed strategies for restrictions that emphasized such technically and economically strategic capacities in immigrants—through employment preferences in ways that removed overt racial preferences, prioritized family reunifications, and imposed overall caps in numbers–that were legislated into the 1965 Immigration Act. By restricting immigration through processes that select for welcome immigrants, rather than offend by identifying and excluding the unwanted, the United States improved its standing on the international stage by remaking its immigration controls to more closely emulate the ideals of democracy and equality espoused in the Constitution. Such transitions positioned Chinese, and other populations who disproportionately immigrate through the employment preferences, as highly achieving “model minorities” with above average attainment in education, household income, and professional and white collar employment.