Thursday, May 28, 2015

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and the Building of an Immigrant Nation

1914 Chinese | Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and the Building of an Immigrant Nation
Chinese American baseball team from Hawaii in 1914. Photo by Bain News Service
(Downloaded from the Library of Congress)
She writes…
A colleague reminds me every now and then that as Asians in the States, we are second-class citizens regardless of our accomplishments, qualifications and status back home. Herself a recent US immigrant, she says she has no illusions about the realities of being brown.
As a newcomer, my engagement to people who are neither family nor friends is limited. I have yet to try and test many opportunities but while I am finding my way around a country that still seems like one big conundrum, I choose to drown the many belittling voices.

Eventually, I might either prove or disprove the generalizations and stereotypes about being an Asian or Filipino minority in the US. What I know so far is that second-class or not, the US, as President Barack Obama says, is and “will always be a nation of immigrants.”
This month marks the 36th year that the US celebrates the Asian-Pacific American Heritage. I was delighted to come across this event. To me, it’s not just an acknowledgment of US immigrants from Asia and the Pacific but an acquiescence that we have been an integral part of this nation.
On March 28, 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week proclamation saying “Asian-Americans have played a significant role in the creation of a dynamic and pluralistic America, with their enormous contributions to our science, arts, industry, government and commerce.”
Later in 1990, President George Bush approved the celebration of the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month stating, “Asian and Pacific Americans are not only sharing with us their unique talents and ideas, but also setting high standards of achievement.”
Bush said the month celebrates the “unique customs and traditions of their ancestral homelands” that “have deeply enriched the wonderful heritage we share as a Nation.”
Historically, Asians were not always a welcome race in the US.  A look into its past immigration laws even show prohibition and barring of entry. These laws may seem lifetimes ago now, but it can help understand where the second-class notion originated.
Filipino in 1939 | Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and the Building of an Immigrant Nation
A Filipino lettuce field laborer in Imperial Valley, California in 1939.
Photo by Dorothea Lange
(Downloaded from the Library of Congress)
While we are not the first immigrants of this land, the 2014 State of Asian Americans And Pacific Islanders Series of the Center for American Progress (CAP) identifies Filipino sailors as the earliest Asian American settlers in Louisiana in the mid-1700s. Chinese sailors would arrive the following century in the 1840s in New York.
The Mayflower pilgrims from England may have come a century earlier but Asians have been in the US long enough to be considered as one of the earliest builders of the nation into what it is today.
Based on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) records, it was Europeans who came in droves in the early 19th century. There were 99,618 registered lawful permanent residents from Europe--mostly coming from Ireland and England- from 1820 to 1829.  There were only 34 Asian lawful permanent residents recorded during that time.
Starting 1850s, DHS shows that Chinese came in thousands. Perhaps the increase of the number of Chinese immigrants became a threat that on May 6, 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program (OCP) calls this “the first major law restricting immigration to the United States” and it was “enacted in response to economic fears, especially in the West Coast, where native-born Americans attributed unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior.”
Chinese immigration was banned for 10 years and was extended for 10 more through the Geary Act and became permanent in 1902, according to OCP.
Fifteen years after the permanent banning of Chinese, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 was passed barring anyone from Asia from entering the US except for the Japanese who earlier had a Gentlemen’s Agreement with the US, and Filipinos because the Philippines was then a US colony.
California 1943 | Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and the Building of an Immigrant Nation
The mess line at the Manzanar Relocation Center, California in 1943. Photo by Ansel Adams
(Downloaded from the Library of Congress)
But only seven years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 would be passed, imposing an immigration quota per country and completely excluding immigrants from Asia, the US Department of State Office of the Historian said. Explaining this law, it said, “in all its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of US homogeneity.”
The Asian exception would only be lifted in the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952. Indeed, the US immigration path of Asians has been a grueling one. And it is this history of exclusion that probably fuels the second-class citizen brand that we might willingly or unwittingly wear.
I can only hope that perceptions have evolved with people and technology and that I won’t have to deal with this when I start going out more and become an economically productive resident.
Tides of immigration have also changed. Over the last 10 years, Asian immigration has been on the rise and Asians are the “fastest growing immigrant population in the United States” in the last decade according to CAP.  The policy institute says that Asian immigrants, 85 percent of which are Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, and Korean, have “contributed greatly to the overall growth of the US.”
I would say that the proclamation of May as the Asian-Pacific Heritage Month is in itself an acknowledgement of the contribution of Asians in building this nation.
Asianpacificheritage.gov says this month was chosen in remembrance of the immigration of the first Japanese on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which was accomplished with mostly Chinese immigrant workers on May 10, 1869.
Back home, nature is a sporadic burst of colors in the month of May. Golden showers spew bright yellow blossoms, caballero trees are on fire, and erupted kapok fruits cover the grounds white.  It is also a month of endless fiestas. This is why I am glad that my new place of residence also has something to celebrate in the month of May. #

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