The History of Asian Immigration to the US

United States immigration policy has excluded non-white people from Asian countries since the beginning of naturalization laws. These policies highlight how racism and classism have shaped U.S. immigration.


“Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” This is a quote from Ken Cuccinelli, in 2019 when he was the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (1) As much as these sentiments stray from those shared on The Statue of Liberty, U.S. immigration policies have repeatedly taken this stance throughout history. In one form or another, everyone aside from the indigenous people migrated to the U.S..  Racism and xenophobia have often been at the forefront of our immigration policies and have been used to discriminate against people from Asian countries throughout history.

The Nationality Act of 1790

The Nationality Act of 1790 was the first U.S. law to define and establish a pathway to citizenship through naturalization. However, Congress only included “free white persons” in this first naturalization act. (2)

Chinese Exclusion

Once formal immigration laws were created, different ethnicities were welcomed into the U.S. at varying degrees. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major restrictive immigration law. Laws restricting immigration from a specific region often went hand in hand with a narrative that relied on scapegoating certain ethnicities. In terms of The Chinese Exclusion Act, many Americans were struggling financially and it was common for people to blame Chinese immigrants for their own economic troubles. In reality, Chinese people made up only .002 percent of the U.S. population.

This act suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and made Chinese immigrants ineligible for the naturalization process, which would give them a pathway to citizenship. In 1892, The Geary Act was passed, extending the ban on Chinese immigration for another ten years. This act also made it mandatory for Chinese U.S. residents to carry identifying documentation called certificates of residence. Immigrants caught in public without these certificates could be sentenced to hard labor and deportation. In these cases, bail was only an option if a “credible white witness” vouched for the accused. Chinese immigrants and their families were not made eligible for citizenship until The Magnuson Act was passed in 1943. (3)

Japanese Restrictive Immigration

In 1907, the U.S. and Japan struck a “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which informally restricted Japanese immigration to the U.S. A previous treaty between the nations allowed for uninhibited immigration but this became a problem when more and more Japanese immigrants became a part of the workforce. The narrative that Japanese people were taking jobs from Americans arose and tensions grew, though it was  often bolstered by more racism than reality. This policy was upheld by the Japanese government dissuading emigration from Japan and informally agreeing to deny passports to laborers attempting to enter the U.S. This agreement would be formally replaced by The Immigration Act of 1924. (4)

Immigration Policies of the Early 1920s

The Immigration Act of 1917 was passed during the World War 1 era, making it increasingly difficult to immigrate to the U.S.. It is often easier to pass restrictive immigration policies during national crises under the guise of being a national security issue. This act implemented a literacy test for people over the age of sixteen, increased the tax paid by immigrants upon arrival, and allowed U.S. immigration officials to make more subjective decisions over whom to exclude from the country. The act also excluded entry to anyone born in the geographic zone called the “Asiatic Barred Zone” with an exception for Japanese and Filipino people. (5)

The next restrictive immigration policy passed into law was the  Immigration Act of 1924, also known as The Johnson-Reed Act. This act completely prohibited immigration from Asia and limited other immigration by establishing quotas for certain nationalities. There were immigration quotas set for different countries previously, but they were based on domestic population data collected from the 1910 census. In 1924, the quotas instead became based on population data controlled from the 1890 census, causing quota numbers for majority non-white countries to decrease. This act allocated immigration visas to two percent of each nationality represented in the U.S. based on the 1890 census but completely excluded immigrants from Asia. (6)

Modern Immigration Policies

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as The McCarren and Walter Act, ended the ethnic exclusion of Asians becoming U.S. citizens yet maintained racist quota systems.

Due to the immigration acts of 1965 and 1990, quotas play less of a role in who gets visas today. There is more focus on family reunification, employment opportunities, and refugee needs. The H-1B visa program was also implemented, with provisions for potential temporary citizenship status. Lotteries were established for people to have a means to bypass the previously described system. (7)

Where the United States immigration system used to explicitly prefer whites, it now excludes those without education or skilled labor experience. Through this classism on a globalized scale, minority ethnic groups are still excluded from the U.S. immigration system.

Works Cited

  1. "NPR Choice Page". 2020. Npr.Org.
  2. "Lesson Plan: Asian Immigration - Immigration History". 2020. Immigration History.
  3. "Chinese Exclusion Act". 2020. HISTORY.
  4. "Gentlemen’S Agreement". 2020. HISTORY.
  5. "Milestones: 1921–1936 - Office Of The Historian". 2020. History.State.Gov.
  6. "May 26, 1924 | Immigration Act Of 1924 Prohibits Immigration From Asia". 2020. Calendar.Eji.Org.
  7. "Lesson Plan: Asian Immigration - Immigration History". 2020. Immigration History.

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