Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chinese Immigrants in the United States

The first large group of Asian immigrants to the United States were the Chinese; they came under a contract labor system to work in farms, mines, railroads, and other dirty, dangerous, and demeaning work (Martin, 2011).  Between 1848 and 1882, an estimated 300,000 Chinese came to the United States, many borrowing large sums of money from others for their transport.  A Chinese immigrant’s decision to leave home was often based more on economics than on attraction toward religious or political freedoms offered by the United States (ThinkQuest, 2011).  They migrated to the United States to get away from natural disasters, crop failures, rapid population growth and conflicts, and competition from imported textiles from the Western countries in China (Martin, 2011).  However, these Chinese immigrants were generally denied the right of citizenship and many of them could not return to their home country due to the high cost of return transportation.  Unlike European immigrants, most Asian immigrants, including Chinese, settled initially on the West coast.

As noted earlier, the Chinese were the first group of Asian immigrants in the United States though they were denied the prospect of naturalization (See earlier discussion of the Naturalization Act of 1870).  In 1882, for the first time in the history of the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed barring a whole nationality from immigration to the United States (Martin, 2011; ThinkQuest, 2011).  However, the immigration door for Asian immigrants including Chinese opened again with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act where everyone was generally viewed as equal in the eyes of the U.S. law.

Due to the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, more than half of the new immigrants to the United States were from Latin America, and 25% from Asia (Nieto & Bode, 2010).   Moreover, the influx of Asian immigrants over the last three decades expanded the Asian American population in the United States from less than 1.5 million in 1970 to about 11 million in 2000 (Min, 1995; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).  Many Asian immigrants continue to fall under the category of “voluntary” immigrants.  Ogbu (1991) theorized that regardless of race, voluntary minorities (those who willingly migrate to a country) are often more optimistic about the connection between hard work and success.  According to Ogbu, voluntary immigrants are motivated to succeed economically because of their faith in the American dream (Nieto & Bode, 2010).

According to Suarez-­Orozco (2001) and Min (2004), many Asian immigrants earned some level of education from their home country prior to their immigration in the United States.  They further noted immigrants now, especially those from Asia, were among the best-educated and most skilled individuals in the United States.  This may be true since Asian Americans were generally confident about financial returns for their investment in education in the United States (Goyette & Xie, 1999).  Moreover, because of their marginal status in the U.S. society, Asian Americans of all ethnic groups may view education as the best means to overcome discrimination and other barriers to achieving high social status (Xie & Goyette, 1998).  This view was supported by Barringer, Takeuchi, and Xenos (1990) and Hirschman and Wong (1986); they suggest Asian American adults as a group attained more education than other minorities or native-­born Americans.

Though many college educated Asian immigrants have high earnings from professional and managerial occupations, many others struggle, trapped in low-­level service­‐related jobs (Min, 2004).  In other words, to claim that all Asian immigrants are doing well, socially and economically, in the United States is untrue.  As Suarez-­Orozco (2001) indicated, today’s immigrants in the United States are a highly heterogeneous group of peoples that defy easy generalizations.  This seems also true within and between Asian American groups.

Nonetheless, although there are significant differences within each major type of immigration, there is reason to believe that manual labor migrants, foreign professionals, entrepreneurial groups, and refugees share a number of characteristics with other immigrants.  In other words, immigrants from different nations, entering the United States as professionals and finding positions in their fields, tend to have more similar adaptation experiences than those typical of immigrant laborers from their respective countries (Portes & Rumbaut, 1996).  Therefore, immigrant groups generally share many similarities of their immigration experiences in the United States and these similarities may be more so within and between the Asian immigrant groups.  Within the Asian immigrant groups, there is a growing number of new immigrants who identify themselves as Tibetan immigrants. 

*This is an excerpt from my dissertation on, "Skills education for adult Tibetan immigrants in the United States: Identification, prioritization, resources, and challenges"

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