The classification of “Asian-Pacific” was purely racial: A second-generation Chinese immigrant from, say, Argentina would not be able to apply for a visa as an Argentine. Because of his racial origin, he would always be Chinese, whereas the British-born child of Italian immigrants could come to the United States under the British quota. The McCarran-Walter Act also curtailed Jewish immigration. In both instances, the justification came out of the budding Cold War and the belief that Asians and Jews would propagate communism within U.S. borders.
The bill was intensely debated between nativists and more liberal immigration advocates in Congress. Senator McCarran argued, “The cold, hard truth is that in the United States today there are hard-core, indigestible blocs who have not become integrated into the American way of life, but who, on the contrary, are its deadly enemy.”
President Harry Truman ultimately vetoed it, only to be overridden.
In the past, pro-immigration politicians had been reluctant to commit to a full-throated defense of their principles for the very simple reason that nativism had always been popular. But in the debates over McCarran-Walter, a handful of lawmakers led by Representative Emanuel Celler of New York began to advance the idea that the restrictions on Asian immigration were racist and immoral. In a speech, Senator William Benton of Connecticut argued that the “great investment of our boys’ blood” in the Korean War had been undercut by this sort of shallow and ultimately meaningless immigration reform. “We can totally destroy that investment, and can ruthlessly and stupidly destroy faith and respect in our great principles, by enacting laws that, in effect, say to the peoples of the world: ‘We love you, but we love you from afar. We want you, but for God’s sake, stay where you are.’”
Those rebuttals, along with pressure to make the country’s immigration laws reflect the logic of the civil rights movement, would lay the groundwork for the eventual passage of the Hart-Celler 1965 Immigration Act. In 1960, white immigrants from Europe and Canada made up roughly 84 percent of the immigrant population in the United States. East and South Asians, by contrast, were around 4 percent. Between 1980 and 1990, a majority of the millions of immigrants to the United States came from Latin America or Asia.
Many of these workers brought over their relatives through the family reunification statute in the Hart-Celler Act. A Pew Research Center report found that in 2011, 62 percent of immigrants from the six largest “source countries” (China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) received their green cards through family sponsorships. You may have come to the United States from Korea to study engineering, received your H-1B visa and fallen right into the track of assimilation into the middle class, but your brother and sister might come over with a very different set of abilities, ambitions and visions for their life in this country.
As it turns out, the nativists were right about the coming hordes. The immigrants from Asia arrived in a series of waves throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. They included my parents, my grandparents, my mother’s five siblings, two of my cousins and me. And although their new country did have pockets of people who looked like them, they shared almost nothing in common with their fellow “Asian Americans” except some well-worn threads of culture, whether food or holiday rituals, and the assumptions of white people.
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