Friday, July 20, 2012

Tibetan Immigrants in the United States: Extended Version

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.

The first major group of Tibetan refugees to settle in the United States was supported by the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act through which 1000 Tibetan refugees from South Asia immigrated to the U.S. under a resettlement program (Bay Area Friends of Tibet, 2010; Hess, 2006; The New York Times, 1991).  Moreover, a 1988 U.S. Congress Bill (Public Law 104-­319; 22 U.S.C. 2151 note) sponsored Tibetan refugee students each year to study in American universities to obtain degree and non-­degree education and trainings in the United States (Dharlo, 1994).  According to the Tibetan Scholarship Program (TSP) Website, some of these students chose to remain and settle in the United States (TSP Alumni Association, 2010).  Following these initial settlers, other Tibetans came to the United States as temporary visitors, professionals, and under the Family Reunification Program.  As of July 2010, there were around 10,000 Tibetan immigrants in the United States (L. Nyendak, personal communication, July 13, 2010).

A large number of Tibetan immigrants with “temporary visitor visas” seek asylum once they enter the United States.  According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “To be eligible for refugee or asylum status, an applicant must meet the definition of a refugee set forth in 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA): a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-­founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion (p. 1)” (Martin, 2010).  Though this definition emphasized “refugee”, it also applied to “asylum” in the United States. Tibetans do not qualify as refugees (discussed below).  However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) identify them as asylum seekers.

The U.S. government officially recognizes Tibet as a part of China and Tibetans as citizens of the People’s Republic of China (Dumbaugh, 2008; Obama, 2011).  This is evident when a Tibetan is granted asylum under race, nationality, political, or religious circumstances.  Many Tibetans are surprised to learn that their identity on paper is “Chinese”, officially recognized as “Overseas Chinese” (Wangdi, 2008).  See appendix J for a copy of the U.S. official document where a Tibetan applicant was granted asylum in 2011 as a citizen of China.  This is a concern shared by many Tibetan immigrants in the United States (Hess, 2006).  For instance, in the 2010 U.S. census, Tibetans were often urged to mark themselves as “other” than “Chinese” under the race category (L. Nyendak, personal communication, July 13, 2010).  The issue of race has become rather problematic for Tibetan immigrants as well as researchers of Tibetan immigrants.  First, it is impossible to determine the total number of Tibetan immigrants in the United States by using government records.  Second, a majority of Tibetans who seek asylum do not possess Chinese citizenship to identify as “Chinese American” or “Overseas Chinese”.  Third and finally, Tibetans generally do not consider themselves Chinese.  Though the problem continues to exist for census takers, for the purpose of this study, the term “Tibetan immigrant” means the following: first, Tibetans are culturally, spiritually, politically, and historically unique people and different from Chinese (Blondeau & Buffetrille, 2008) and; second, the existing Office of Tibet in New York City provides a symbolic representation of Tibetans in the United States.

In addition to the issue of identity discussed earlier, moving to a foreign country is not easy for a Tibetan, even under the most propitious circumstances.  It requires elaborate preparations, much expense, giving up personal relations at home, and often learning a new language and culture (Portes & Rumbaut, 1996).  Many Tibetans spend money and energy to immigrate to the United States, a nation many Tibetans consider a land of opportunity and freedom.

Once they reach the United States, Tibetan immigrants often support their families back home in India, Nepal, Bhutan, or Tibet with the money earned in their new country of residence (Gyaltag, 2004).  Having a culture that strongly values the importance of family wellbeing, Tibetan immigrants generally spend more time, energy, and money in helping their families than on their own future (Wangdi, 2008).  Because of strong ties with family back home and with the local Tibetan community, the acculturation of Tibetan immigrants tends to be slow. In New York City, for example, Tibetan immigrant parents often fail to understand the local school education system and policies that effect their children’s education.  Though it may not be irrational to maintain one’s own culture, values, identity, and community in the United States, an immigrant must also realize the importance of selective acculturation to acquire a better paying job and a higher standard of living.  Olneck (2004) supported this notion that immigrants should maintain ethnic loyalty as well as participate in ethnic communities combined with their acculturation to American culture.  Brumberg (1986) also added credence to the importance of new immigrants sharing in the American life and achieving the required knowledge for their successful participation in a modern urban society.

Many Tibetan immigrants anticipate obtaining better-­paying jobs, indicating the presence of some motivation towards upward mobility.  Ogbu, who studied the differences between voluntary and involuntary immigrants, supported the presence of a motivation to succeed economically among voluntary immigrants, such as Tibetans, in the United States (Neito & Bode, 2010).  As with other Asian Americans (Goyette & Xie, 1999), Tibetan immigrants are also generally confident about financial returns from education in the United States.  However, from my personal experiences, many adult Tibetans seem uncomfortable or are reluctant to continue learning once their formal education is completed, they get settled into a job, or they get married and have children.  This reluctance towards continuous learning may be changing in the United States (hopefully, my study may shed some light on this).

As with Mainland Chinese and Indians (from South Asia), Tibetan immigrants also share a preference to settle in New York City where there is a relatively high level of both ethnic diversity and concentration (Portes & Rumbaut, 1996).  New York’s flourishing Chinatown and Jackson Heights (Indian concentrated area) seem to provide the lure for many new Tibetan immigrants.  As of July 2010, out of the estimated 10,000 Tibetan immigrants in the United States, around 7,000 were concentrated in the area of New York and New Jersey (L. Nyendak, personal communication, July 13, 2010).  There seems to be no precise data distinguishing how many Tibetan immigrants reside in New York City and in New Jersey.  But, from my personal observations, the population in New Jersey may not be more than 1,000 Tibetan immigrants; they tend to have better living standards than the majority who lives in the five boroughs of New York City.

Tibetan preference for New York City was supported by some scholars who argued that successful adaptation in the United States among immigrants may relate to the patterns of cultural, economic, and social capital they were able to deploy in the new land through the support of peers (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).  Perhaps, most important, New York City provides an opportunity for undocumented jobs for Tibetan immigrants to survive economically while they go through the asylum application process of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

However, most immigrants in New York City work in low-­skilled, low-­paying jobs, which not only demand hard labor but also long working hours (Asian American Justice Center, 2007; Min, 2004; Wrigley et. al., 2009).  From my personal experiences, this finding rings generally true among Tibetan immigrants in New York City.

*An excerpt from the dissertation, "Skills education for adult Tibetan immigrants in the United States: Identification, prioritization, resources, and challenges" 2012, Page 28-32.

Read also: Dominance of Rumor-based Facts in Immigrant Communites


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  2. Interesting and informative !! There will be surely another wave of skilled tibetans coming into US in the coming decades !!

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