Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

US Immigration Laws and the Making of Model Minorities and Illegal Aliens



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Madeline Y. Hsu, Associate Professor, Centre for Asian America Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. This post is the second instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Race and Border Control organised by Prof Yolanda Vázquez.

In How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts , the historian Natalia Molina observes that “perhaps the most powerful and effective means of constructing and reordering the social order in the United States.” Construed broadly, immigration laws serve defensive agendas, in keeping out potential threats or drains on national resources, as well as strategic agendas that enhance foreign relations and economic competitiveness. The former sets of priorities are generally served by exclusionary measures that identify attributes and categories of persons to be barred from entry, whereas the latter goals tend to select or screen for the admission of advantageous individuals and groups. Because they are understood as serving national interests, immigration laws and policies are perhaps the main area of US government authority in which systemic inequalities are tolerated and even encouraged―although considerable conflicts have always complicated what national priorities are most important, how they can be protected, and the uneven impact of immigration laws and administrative practices on different populations.

Signing of the 1965 Immigration Act (Source: LBJ Library | Photo: Yoichi Okamoto)

Studying Asian American populations highlights the tremendous power of immigration laws to shape certain sectors of American society. Asian Americans, categorized by race and national origins, were the first to face enforced immigration restriction during early US nation-building. By excluding Asians as unfit for citizenship, the United States worked out the ideological, legal, and institutional foundations and sets of strategies justifying and implementing a broadening array of controls. These controls were to serve an increasingly well-defined set of priorities and national protections against probable problems such as the diseased, illiterate, imbeciles, those likely to become public charges, and radicals. After World War II, Asians served as templates for the determination of attributes and recruiting mechanisms that made up desirable immigrants, chiefly defined by family connections, capacities to contribute economically, and strengthen foreign relations as refugee admissions. These are the main criteria for entry under the 1965 Immigration Act, which has significantly remade Asian Americans into a model minority population. Given the choice of potential immigrants from around the world, the United States has given preferential admission to those with higher-than-average levels of education; white-collar, professional, and technical employment; and thus household incomes. As a predominantly foreign-born population for most of its history, and currently standing at 70 percent foreign-born, the demography of Asian Americans reveal most strikingly US economic priorities in deciding the qualifications for legal entry.

 While stipulating outright US immigration preferences, the 1965 Immigration Act avoids characterizing explicitly the majority of the world’s population that will never have rights of legal of entry because they lack the family connections, educational and employment skills, or refugee standing that it specifies. This burden falls hardest upon America’s immediate neighbors, who by proximity and ease of travel choose the much wealthier and more secure United States as a logical location to see relatives, seek temporary work and shelter from homeland unrest, or to simply visit as tourists. The long history of shared land borders and the many passages back and forth that bound the United States to its neighbors were ruptured by US efforts to limit and police what had been natural flows between interconnected spaces. Those who continue to migrate without authorization, usually motivated by employment, are simply insufficiently educated or trained, or politically strategic, to meet US standards for the level of advantages sought before conferring permission to enter legally. That many of those so barred are poor and brown exacerbates their marginalization and systemic disadvantages. Eight of 11 million unauthorized immigrants crossed the US’s southern border. Even though the text of the 1965 Immigration Act doesn’t articulate these discriminations, as a democratic nation we should assume responsibility for the inequalities that our laws produce and legislate measures that acknowledge and normalize the communal lives and networks that our shared physical landscapes produce.
Themed Week on Race and Border Control:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Hsu, M. (2015) US Immigration Laws and the Making of Model Minorities and Illegal Aliens. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/us-immigration-laws/ (Accessed [date]).

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