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Is Gender Justice Getting Shafted in Immigration Reform?

3:46 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Last Monday, in what became a heated exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Mee Moua, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, defended programs allowing families to immigrate together to the U.S. (Courtesy of the DOL)

The politics of immigration touch upon major faultlines in American society: not just the legal boundary between citizen and foreigner, but also lines of race, class, nationality, culture and, increasingly, gender. Women, who make up about half of the U.S. immigrant population and an estimated 40 percent of undocumented adults, face unique challenges as migrants. However, gender issues have gone almost entirely unremarked in official immigration-reform talks–that is, until a Senate hearing last Monday, when Mee Moua, head of the Asian American Justice Center, seized an opportunity to call out the invisibility of women in the debate.

The opening came when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) asked bluntly which immigrant would be a better candidate for legal status: an applicant for a family reunification visa or a skilled professional from overseas? Although family visas are the channel by which generations of migrants have brought family members to the U.S., Sessions’ rhetorical question suggested that skilled professionals make more desirable Americans.

Moua countered that Sessions’ hypothetical reflected deep gender imbalances in the immigration system. The “less desirable” migrant, she argued, would likely be “female, would not have been permitted to get an education and if we would create a system where there would be some kind of preference given to say education, or some other kind of metrics, I think that it would truly disadvantage specifically women and their opportunity to come into this country.”

The tense exchange marked one of the first moments in the current round of reform talks that Congress members have been asked to confront the gender biases inherent in our immigration policies. Such biases have a long history: Male-centered guestworker schemes date all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era of the late 19th century, when blatantly xenophobic laws brought in masses of Chinese male laborers while shutting out their family members in an attempt to deter the workers from settling in the United States.

Today, despite the strides women have made in high-skill fields (most professional workers are now women), they are still heavily underrepresented in “guestworker” programs for professional immigrant workers, which skew heavily toward the vaunted, notoriously male-dominated science and tech (STEM) fields. For example, the controversial H1B visa program for professional temp workers, long touted as a spigot for STEM talent, brought in about 350,000 immigrant men but fewer than 140,000 women in 2011. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing proposals to sharply limit family-based visa programs–which make up about 65 percent of authorized permanent immigration–alongside plans for expanding the prized professional visas. As Pramila Jayapal points out at, men tend to hold professional visas, intended to anchor household “breadwinners,” while women are overrepresented among family visas, which can chain their legal status to an authorized (male) worker.

These biases are no political accident, but a symptom of the privileging of corporate demands over community needs. Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s in the household, off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy. But because it doesn’t seem to directly contribute as much to corporate bottom lines, it’s overlooked.

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Tule Lake: The Quiet Legacy of “No”

12:17 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Boy behind barbed wire fence, Tule Lake. ("Mr. George Oni and his daughter Georgette Chize Oni bidding farewell to brother Henry Oni"). Jack Iwata, National Archives.

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

Just as America was celebrating Independence Day, a quiet pilgrimage had marked a history of loss on a stark stretch of land in California. A group of Japanese Americans came to Tule Lake, California to commemorate the detention of more than 18,000 members of their community in an internment camp there during World War II. It’s a history of the immigrant experience that is far removed from the tales of upward-strivers coming ashore and achieving the American dream–and yet it’s every bit as American. During this obscured period of U.S. World War II history, many Japanese Americans responded to their detention with a combination of resilience, confusion and insistence that they were in fact loyal Americans. But many Tule Lake prisoners were labeled as “disloyal” by the authorities because they refused to affirm two questions that were designed to separate “enemy aliens”–those supposedly aligned with U.S. adversary Japan– from good Americans.  According to the Tule Lake Committee’s historical account, two questions were enough to test a person’s loyalty, even if the only country they knew was the one that had incarcerated them because of their ethnicity:

Question 27 asked, Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Question 28 asked, Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

“No-Nos” gave negative responses to Questions 27 and 28 or refused to answer them. Some answered “No” to protest their incarceration; others were confused about what the questions meant. Refusal to answer or “No” answers were viewed as proof of disloyalty, and resulted in removal to Tule Lake, which became the Segregation Center because it had the highest proportion of persons who answered “No” to 27 and 28. The Japanese American Citizens League harshly condemned “No-Nos” as troublemakers, believing the situation demanded a strong show of loyalty to America.

The Tule Lake encampment has become a site of commemoration for survivors and their families, for remembering an era when the government could use war as a pretext to act with impunity, to turn the force of the state against its own people in the name of patriotism. Read the rest of this entry →