Asian Americans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the historical context and current experience of Asian Americans in the United States

Asian Americans

Like many groups discussed in this module, Asian Americans represent a great diversity of cultures and backgrounds. The experience of a Japanese American whose family has been in the United States for three generations will be drastically different from a Laotian American who has only been in the United States for a few years.

The most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau (2021) suggests that about 6% percent of the population identify themselves as Asian, or 7.2% as Asian in combination with another race. While this number may be a relatively small percentage of the current U.S. population, Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country, surpassing Hispanics in 2055. In 50 years, Asians are projected to make up 38 percent of all U.S. immigrants, while Hispanics will make up 31 percent of the nation’s immigrant population[1]

How and Why They Came

The national and ethnic diversity of Asian American immigration history is reflected in the variety of their experiences in joining U.S. society. Asian immigrants have come to the United States primarily in the third wave (1880-1914) and fourth wave (1965-present), but also in the second wave (1820-1860). The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed national-origin quotas established in 1921, resulting in marked population growth during this period with 491,000 Asian immigrants in 1960 and 12.8 million Asian immigrants in 2014, which accounts from a 2,597 percent increase[2]. As of 2014, the top five origin countries of Asian immigrants were India, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Korea.

The first Asian immigrants to come to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were Chinese. These immigrants were primarily men whose intention was to work for several years in order to earn incomes to send back to their families in China. Their main destination was the American West, where the Gold Rush (’49 ers) was drawing people with its lure of abundant money. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was underway at this time, and the Central Pacific section hired thousands of migrant Chinese men to complete the laying of rails across the rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range. Chinese men also engaged in other manual labor like mining and agricultural work. This work was grueling and underpaid, but like many immigrants, they persevered.

Japanese immigration began in the 1880s, on the heels of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work in the sugar industry; others came to the mainland, especially to California. Unlike the Chinese, however, the Japanese had a strong government in their country of origin that negotiated with the U.S. government to ensure the well-being of their immigrants. Japanese men were able to bring their wives and families to the United States, and were thus able to produce second- and third-generation Japanese Americans more quickly than their Chinese counterparts.

Filipinos migrated to the United States after the U.S. annexed the Philippines in 1899. As U.S. nationals, they were not subjected to the same restrictions as other groups. Many settled in California and Hawaii and worked in agricultural jobs. Immigration slowed as a result of restrictions for several decades, but after World War II “war brides” began to arrive with returning U.S. servicemen. Although the Philippines obtained its independence in 1946 in the Treaty of Manila, the U.S. still became home to a large number of Filipino immigrants, with the number of immigrants quadrupling from 501,000 in 1980 to 1,942,000 in 2016.[3]

Bar graph showing the increase in number of Filipino immigrant populations in the United States. In 1980, the number of immigrants was 501,000, and steadily increased to nearly 2 million in 2016.

Figure 1. Filipino Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2016. SourcesData from U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2016 American Community Surveys (ACS), and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006), https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/twps0029.html.

Fourth wave Asian immigration included immigrants from India, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. As you can see in Figure 2, Indian immigration grew between 1980 and 2010 more than eleven-fold, roughly doubling every decade. It is composed primarily of English-speaking, highly educated immigrants, many of whom qualified for an H-1B (a temporary visa for highly skilled immigrants)[4]. In 2013, India and China supplanted Mexico as the top sources of newly arriving immigrants in the United States (Zong and Batalova 2017).

Bar graph showing the increasing number of Indian immigrants from 206,000 in 1980, to 2.3 million in 2015.

Figure 2. Indian Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2015. SourcesData from U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2015 American Community Surveys (ACS), and 1980, 1990, and 2000 Decennial Census, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/indian-immigrants-united-states.

Wars in Korea and Vietnam led to increased immigration from those countries after 1965. While Korean immigration has been fairly gradual, Vietnamese immigration was more concentrated after 1975, when the formerly U.S.-backed city of Saigon fell and a restrictive communist government was established. Whereas many Asian immigrants came to the United States to seek better economic opportunities, Vietnamese immigrants came as political refugees, seeking asylum from repressive conditions in their homeland. The Refugee Act of 1980 helped them settle in the United States, with large numbers coming from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many of these refugees settled in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, forming ethnic enclaves in urban areas.

A black and white image of a crowded boat containing Vietnamese refugees.

Figure 3. Thirty-five Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19). They are being rescued from a thirty-five-foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

History of Intergroup Relations

We hear a lot about opium use today as opiate-related deaths have sharply risen, though opium use is nothing new in America. Although its popularity has varied over time, opium use spread, especially on the west coast, because many Chinese immigrants brought the knowledge and familiarity of opium dens to the United States. San Francisco passed an ordinance against opium dens in 1875, making it a misdemeanor to keep or visit any place where opium was smoked, though the law also served to discriminate against the Chinese. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle explained that the Board of Supervisors acted to ban opium dens after learning of “opium-smoking establishments kept by Chinese, for the exclusive use of white men and women” and of “young men and women of respectable parentage” going there.[5]

This early act of discrimination was quickly followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted immigration from China. This act was a result of anti-Chinese sentiment, which was further exacerbated by a depressed economy and loss of jobs. White workers blamed Chinese migrants for taking jobs, and the passage of the Act meant the number of available Chinese workers decreased. Chinese men did not have the funds to return to China or to bring their families to the United States, so they remained physically and culturally segregated in the Chinatowns of large cities. Nevertheless, some eventually opened businesses such as laundromats or other service establishments.

In Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), the Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to administer a law that is ostensibly race-neutral in a prejudicial way with regard to a particular group of people. The plaintiff, Yick Wo, a non-citizen Chinese immigrant who owned a laundry in a wooden building (common in San Francisco, though technically illegal) was denied a permit (along with every other Chinese-owned laundromat), though whites in the same situation were granted permits. This was a landmark case because it established equal protection for non-citizens residing in the U.S.

Although Japanese Americans have deep, long-reaching roots in the United States, their history here has not always been smooth. Restrictions on Japanese immigration took the form of the Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907 between the U.S. and Japan, wherein President Theodore Roosevelt agreed to urge the City of San Francisco to end a school segregation order affecting Japanese students, and the Japanese emperor agreed in turn not to issue any new passports for Japanese citizens looking to work in the U.S. (although it did not prevent “picture brides” from coming to the U.S. to marry Japanese men). 
The California Alien Land Law of 1913 was aimed at the Japanese and other Asian immigrants, and it prohibited aliens from owning land. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded Asian immigrants from entering the United States. The Act included the race-based National Origins Act, which was aimed at keeping U.S. ethnic stock as undiluted as possible by reducing “undesirable” immigrants. It was not until after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Chinese immigration again increased, and many Chinese families were reunited. Another notoriously discriminatory policy against the Japanese were the internment camps of World War II, discussed earlier as an illustration of expulsion.

Current Status

Asian Americans are a rapidly growing part of the population. The New York University (NYU) Center for the Study of Asian American Health examines growth in New York City. Researchers there found that New York City (NYC) is home to nearly 1.2 million documented and undocumented Asian Americans, representing more than 13% of the total NYC population. This diverse population (more than 20 countries of origin and 45 languages and dialects) grew by 110% from 1990 to 2010.

Immigrant and Emigrant Populations by Country of Origin and Destination

Use this interactive map on immigrant and emigrant populations to examine where many of the world’s 258 million international migrants moved. You can use the dropdown menu to select a country of origin to see where emigrants have settled.

Thumbnail of the interactive map on immigrant and emigrant populations by country. You can open the map in a new tab by clicking on the image.

Asian Americans certainly have been subject to their share of racial prejudice, despite seemingly positive stereotype as the model minority. The model minority stereotype is applied to a group that is seen as achieving significant educational, professional, and socioeconomic success without challenging the existing establishment. This stereotype is typically applied to Asian groups in the United States, and it can result in unrealistic expectations by putting a stigma on those who do not meet the presumed standard. Stereotyping all Asians as smart and capable can also limit much-needed government assistance, and can result in educational and professional discrimination.

The reality is quite different for most Asian Americans, especially recent immigrants. Although there are stories of Chinese billionaires buying properties for their children studying in the U.S. and about the influx of educated, highly-skilled Asians seeking employment in STEM fields, many of the poorest Asian groups in the U.S. have a vastly different quality of life. Although unemployment remains low among Asian Americans, 12.3 percent live below the federal poverty level, with almost 20 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders living in poverty (according to the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey similar to the U.S. Census, conducted every ten years).[6] According to the NYC Opportunity tabulations, 17.9 percent of people living in poverty in New York City were Asian Americans, and they had the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group at 29 percent. Contradictorily, Asian American community organizations received only 1.4 percent of the city’s social service contract dollars from the Department of Social Services (Tran 2018).

Hate crimes against asian americans

Several people stand wearing masks and holding signs. One sign reads, “We Are Not a Virus, Hate Is.” And another reads “Protect Asian Women.”

Figure 4. In response to widespread attacks against Asian people, partly linked to incorrect associations regarding Asian people and the COVID-19 pandemic, groups around the country and world held Stop Asian Hate rallies like this one in Canada. (Credit: GoToVan/flickr)

Asian Americans across the United States experienced a significant increase in hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination tied to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community trackers recorded more than 3,000 anti-Asian attacks nationwide during 2020 in comparison to about 100 such incidents recorded annually in the prior years (Abdollah 2021). Asian American leaders have been urging community members to report any criminal incidents, demanding local law enforcement agencies for greater enforcement of existing hate-crime laws.

Many Asian Americans feel their communities have long been ignored by mainstream politics, media, and entertainment although they are considered as a “model minority.” Recently, Asian American journalists are sharing their own stories of discrimination on social media and a growing chorus of federal lawmakers are demanding actions. Do you think you can do something to stop violence against Asian Americans? Can any of your actions not only help Asian Americans but also wider people in the United States?

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Please watch the trailer from the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) for one example of the elite Asian American immigrant. Then consider the questions that follow.

  • Why do you think there is such a disconnect between numbers of Asian Americans in poverty and funding for Asian community organizations?
  • What would be the unique challenges of obtaining survey data in Asian communities that might not pose the same challenges in other minority communities? How would you suggest addressing these sampling challenges?
  • In what ways is the model minority an ideology to justify inequality and racism?
  • Do you think dark-skinned Asian Americans might be subjected to more prejudice and discrimination than light-skinned Asian Americans?

Try It

glossary

model minority:
the stereotype applied to a minority group that is seen as reaching higher educational, professional, and socioeconomic levels without challenging the majority establishment

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  1. Lopez, G., Ruiz, N., and E. Patten. 2017. "Key facts about Asian Americans," http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/08/key-facts-about-asian-americans/
  2. Zong, J. and J. Batalova. 2017. "Indian Immigrants in the United States," https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/indian-immigrants-united-states.
  3. Zong, J. and J. Batalova, 2018. "Filipino Immigrants in the United States," Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/filipino-immigrants-united-states.
  4. Zong, J. and J. Batalova. 2017. "Indian Immigrants in the United States," https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/indian-immigrants-united-states.
  5. Fisher, G. 2014. "The Drug War at 100." Stanford Law School Aggregate Blog. https://law.stanford.edu/2014/12/19/the-drug-war-at-100/.
  6. Tran, V. 2018. "Asian Americans are Falling Through the Cracks," Urban Wire. https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/asian-americans-are-falling-through-cracks-data-representation-and-social-services.