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Asian-American History

From Chinese laborers in the 1800s to millions of U.S. citizens today

by David Johnson

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When they first arrived in the United States, Asian (usually Chinese) immigrants were welcomed, or at least tolerated. After the California gold rush brought thousands of Chinese to California, however, Asian immigrants faced restrictive laws and occasional violence.

In the late 1800s, Chinese, and eventually other Asians, were excluded from citizenship. These laws were repealed during World War II, followed by further immigration-law changes, making it easier for Asians to enter the United States.

Today, Asian immigrants have a high rate of assimilation and participation in the American mosaic.

Gold Rush Boom

The Chinese were the first Asians to arrive in large numbers. By the 1830s, Chinese were selling goods in New York City and toiling in Hawaiian sugarcane fields.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, eventually attracting thousands of Chinese miners and contract laborers. In 1850, just over 1,000 Asian immigrants entered the U.S., but ten years later, the figure had jumped to nearly 37,000, mostly Chinese.

Violent Protests

In some quarters, Chinese workers were welcomed. The Central Pacific Railroad recruited Chinese to work on the transcontinental railroad in 1865. Three years later the Chinese and the U.S. ratified the Burlingame Treaty which facilitated Chinese immigration.

However, many people feared being "overwhelmed" by the influx, which had swelled to nearly 65,000 in 1870, and over 107,000 in 1880. Some cities passed laws against Chinese and other Asians, often referred to as "Mongolians." Anti-Chinese riots erupted in Chico, California, in 1877 and in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.

Japanese Arrive

Meanwhile, increasing contact with Japan prompted Japanese to move to Hawaii and California to work in agriculture. In 1869 the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony was established in California.

Contact with the Philippines

In 1899, following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines came under U.S. control, prompting increased immigration. In 1902, the pensionado program, which allowed Filipinos to study in the U.S., was implemented.

Because most Filipinos are Roman Catholic, their integration into American life was somewhat easier than for other Asians. Though Filipinos faced the same prejudices as Chinese and Japanese laborers (as described in Carlos Bulosan's book America is in the Heart), Filipinos arrived with English skills, making assimilation easier.

Japanese Internment

During World War II, more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were placed in internment camps. Even though many did not speak Japanese or have close ties to Japan, they were nonetheless regarded as wartime threats. Although the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, Americans with ancestors from those countries did not face internment.

In 1988, Congress passed a measure giving $20,000 to Japanese Americans who had been interned during the war. President George H.W. Bush signed it the following year.

Increasing Numbers

Although Asian immigration increased steadily through much of the 20th century, the region still contributed fewer newcomers than Europe, Latin America, and North America.

The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 eliminated race as a barrier to immigration, and in 1965 national quotas were ended, thus facilitating Asian immigration.

Increasing Clout

Political power soon followed. Dalip Singh was elected to U.S. Congress from California's Imperial Valley, and in 1962 Hawaii sent Daniel K. Inouye to the U.S. Senate and Spark Matsunaga to the U.S. House. Two years later, Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii was elected to the U.S. House, becoming the first Asian-American woman in Congress.

Since then, hundreds of Asian Americans have been elected to state legislatures and municipal positions.

A More Diverse Group

In 1979, the United States and China resumed diplomatic relations, making immigration easier for Chinese. But, new arrivals came from other Asian countries as well, including India and Pakistan. And in 1975 following the Vietnam War, more than 130,000 refugees fleeing from the Communist governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos arrived on U.S. shores. Million of Asians arrived in subsequent years.

In 1980, more than 2.5 million Asian immigrants entered the U.S., up from under 500,000 in 1960.

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the numbers of Asians coming to the U.S. by raising the total quota and reorganizing system of preferences to favor certain professional groups. This allowed Asians with training in medicine, high technology, and other specialties to enter more easily. From 5 million in 1990, the number of Asian immigrants more than doubled by 2009, reaching 10.6 million.


Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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William O. Douglas served the longest term (36 years and 209 days) on the Supreme Court.

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