The 1965 Immigration Act and the Gaslighting of East Asians

By: Mary Marston

*CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC* Author uses this image because it was the original poster used to promote the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892.

A. Introduction

From the mid-20th Century through the present, Eastern Asians have been used as a racial wedge between white Americans and other people of color.  Pundits have used Eastern Asian’s perceived monetary and professional success as a means of telling other communities of color to simply pull themselves up by their “bootstraps.”[1]  Other communities of color regularly gaslight Eastern Asians,[2] claiming that they are not “people of color” or are “basically white”.[3]  Many sociologists’ studies of the “whitening” of Eastern Asians focus exclusively on those who the United States accepted as immigrants from the 1965 Immigration Act, which only permitted persons who already held a high socioeconomic status and education level in their countries of origin to immigrate to the United States. This Act established the “Model Minority” myth and racial triangulation of East Asians that results in the gaslighting of East Asians’ lived experiences of racism in the United States. To navigate this complex concept, it is necessary to address the facets of the 1965 Immigration Act that prioritized monied immigrants and documented social uprisings led by East Asians and how East Asians are subjected to mass gaslighting and racial triangulation systemic racism.

B. “Qualified Immigrants” and the Perpetuation of the Model Minority Myth

The 1965 Immigration Act only made visas available to “qualified immigrants,” which the Act defined as those “who are members of the professions, or who because of their exceptional ability in the sciences or the arts will substantially benefit the national economy, cultural interests, or welfare of the United States.”[4]  The Act further defined acceptable “professions” as, “architects, engineers, lawyers, physicians, surgeons, and teachers in elementary or secondary schools, colleges, academies, or seminaries,” and restricted “unskilled” and “temporary” laborers from migrating to the United States.[5] 

The Act’s prioritization of immigrants from white-collared backgrounds stands in direct opposition to other programs at the intersection of labor and immigration, like the Braceros program, which the federal government implemented in 1951. [6]  This program permitted millions of guest workers from Mexico into the United States on short-term labor contracts, mostly in the agricultural industry, prioritizing the temporary migration of what some consider “low-skilled” workers to fill labor shortages.  Many Braceros permanently migrated to the United States.  Most had a lower socioeconomic advantage than those permitted to migrate under the 1965 Immigration Act that required immigrants to meet rigid educational and financial standards.  The Act also made a special provision for those who were immigrating from a non-Communist dominated society or were fleeing from persecution because of their opposition to the Communist party.[7]

C. Centuries of Gaslighting: Ignoring Systemic Racism Against East Asians

Non-East Asian perception of people originating from Eastern Asia is primarily formulated based on the group’s professional success following the 1965 Immigration Act.  However, there is a large Eastern Asian working class.  In fact, some East Asians are descended from laborers who the United States brought to replace the labor of Black Americans who the country subjected to chattel slavery, to construct railways on the West Coast, and to work on plantations in Hawai’i.[8]

Examples of anti-East Asian, specifically Sinophobic, racism from the 1800s include People v. Hall, the Chinese Massacre of 1871, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, and the 1892 Chinese Exclusion Act.  People v. Hall set a precedent that Chinese people had no right to testify against white men.[9]  The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which resulted in what some historians call the largest mass-lynching in United States’ history, was led by nearly 500 residents of Los Angeles.  The Court in Yick Wo concluded that the officer violated the plaintiffs’ rights under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause because of his biased enforcement of the plaintiffs’ failure to operate a laundry business without a permit.[10]  Chinese burgeoning rights in the United States were once again thwarted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first act to prevent the immigration of a specific racial group into the United States.[11]

Anti-Asian racism continued into the 1900s, as shown in Lum v. Rice, Korematsu v. the United States, anti-miscegenation laws targeted at Eastern Asians, the War Brides Act, and the use of Filipinx nurses during the AIDS crisis.  In Lum v. Rice, the court brought into question the status of Chinese people as “colored” and held that Mississippi’s denial of education access to the elementary-aged Chinese American plaintiff did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.[12]  In Korematsu v. the United States, the Supreme Court held that Fred Korematsu’s refusal to be imprisoned in an internment camp broke Executive Order 9066 and that the order did not show racial prejudice but was meant to secure the United States’ interest during World War II.[13] 

The War Brides Act furthered the commodification of Eastern Asian women’s bodies in military settings.  It permitted those who served in World War II to bring their foreign wives as legitimate wives to the United States.  As exemplified in Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, the relations between Eastern Asian women and white men in these scenarios are often exploitative and speak to broader cultural norms of women of color’s devaluation.[14]  During the Korean War, the United States’ servicemen utilized “comfort stations” that the Japanese military created to sexually abuse and rape Korean girls and women en masse.[15]  Cohabitation marriages became commonplace.[16]  As one survivor said, “looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”[17]  This practice extended and continued into U.S. military servicemen’s interactions with Southeast Asian women during the Vietnam War.[18]

The United States’ exploitation of Eastern Asian bodies was also mirrored with Filipinx nurses’ use during the AIDS crisis. From the beginning of the United States’ colonization of the Philippines, it set up a parallel nursing school in Manila.[19]  The Filipinx nurses’ population surged in the 1980s and 1990s during the height of the AIDS crisis when American nurses refused to work.  Many of these nurses were subjected to labor exploitation and inhumane living conditions and are currently at the frontlines of COVID-19.  As of October 2020, Filipinx nurses account for the highest death rate among health workers working with COVID-19 patients.

Even amidst these various forms of systemic racism, Eastern Asians have been fundamental to the civil rights movements in the United States.  Filipinx farmworkers led the Delano Grape Strike after failing to secure minimum wage guarantees.  Mexican workers joined them two weeks later.[20]  Other East Asians, like Grace Lee Boggs, worked parallel with Black Civil Rights activists to secure fundamental rights for the working class.[21]  Yuri Kochiyama, whose family was interned during World War II, participated in the Black, Asian American, and Third World movements for civil and human rights.[22] The Yellow Peril Movement aligned itself with the Black Panther Party, and the Black Panthers identified with the East Asian struggle given the proximity to the internment of Japanese Americans and labor movements led by Chinese and Filipinx.[23]

D. #TheyCantBurnUsAll and the New Chinese Exclusion Act

East Asians face both COVID-related hate crimes, and the presentation of the categorization of COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” plays into historical narratives as Westerners viewing East Asians “as the physical embodiment of foreignness and disease.”[24] This Sinophobic reality has led to an explosion of hate crimes against Eastern Asians across the world.  New York City’s Police Department created a task force specifically dedicated to addressing the spike in anti-East Asian hate crimes.[25]

China Mac and William Lex Ham organized a series of protests in reaction to an 89-year-old Chinese American woman being set on fire under the banner, #TheyCantBurnUsAll.[26]  Eastern Asians are now using #TheyCantBurnUsAll to self-report their own stories of discrimination and hate crimes on social media.[27]

The federal government has furthered Anti-East Asian sentiment by impressing the “Inadmissibility Based on Membership in a Totalitarian Party” memo released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in October 2020.[28]  This would effectively bar any of the Chinese Communist Party’s 90 million members from immigrating to or residing in the United States.[29] This sentiment echoes the 1965 Immigration Act’s prohibition against communist party members from entering the United States and demonstrating systemic Sinophobia.

E. Conclusion

Non-East Asian communities ignore Sinophobia and other forms of anti-East Asian sentiment as forms of racism due to the racial triangulation of East Asians as the “perpetual foreigner” in the United States.[30]  The lack of East Asian history taught in schools, lack of representation in the media, and the “bamboo ceiling” add to these issues.[31]  This also enables other communities of color to misdirect their frustrations with systemic racism and classism towards the East Asian community, given the success of a select few of this community that the United States granted entry to via the 1965 Immigration Act.  Hate crimes targeted against East Asians because of COVID-19 and USCIS’ latest policy directive manifest this underlying racism and echo Cold War-era “Red Scare” sentiments.  Non-East Asian communities must evaluate how they are complicit in perpetuating these discriminatory and racist narratives that justify violence against East Asians within their own countries and in East Asia.

Note: the author’s mother is Sino-Burmese and her father is Mexican and Afro-Caribbean.


[1] See generally Iris Kuo, The ‘Whitening’ of Asian Americans, The Atlantic (Aug. 31, 2018) https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/08/the-whitening-of-asian-americans/563336/.

[2] See id. (particularizing how East Asians are targeted again to separate the discriminations suffered from those with East Asian ancestry as opposed to Central, South, and Southwest Asians [also known as Middle Eastern].

[3] E.g., Benjamin Goggin, There’s a Growing Debate Over Who Qualifies as a ‘Person of Color’ — Who is and Isn’t Included?, Insider: People (Dec. 8, 2018)

https://www.insider.com/the-internet-is-debating-who-to-call-people-of-color-2018-11 (referring to social media posts made by non-East Asian people of color that claim that the monetary success of some East Asians disqualifies East Asians from being “minorities” or “people of color”).

[4] E.g., Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, H.R. 2508 89th Cong. § 203(3)

[5] E.g., id. (demonstrating the socioeconomic class gap perpetuated by the Act).

[6] Bracero History Archive: About (last accessed Oct. 22, 2020) http://braceroarchive.org/about (explaining the purpose and function of the program).

[7] Immigration and Nationality Act § 201 (a)(ii)(A)(I).

[8] See Matthew Pratt Guterl, After Slavery: Asian Labor, the American South, and the Age of Emancipation, 14 Journal of World History 209-41 (2003) (Accessed Oct. 19, 2020) http://www.jstor.org/stable/20079206; see also “History of Labor in Hawai’i”, Center for Labor Education & Research at the University of Hawai’i- West O’ahu (Accessed Oct. 26, 2020) https://www.hawaii.edu/uhwo/clear/home/HawaiiLaborHistory.html.

[9] E.g., People v. Hall, 4 Cal. 399, 401-05 (1854).

[10] E.g., Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 374 (1886).

[11] E.g., “The Chinese Exclusion Act”, The African American Policy Forum (last accessed Oct. 22, 2020) https://aapf.org/chinese-exclusion-act (noting Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated, “the Chinese race [is] a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States.”).

[12] E.g., Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78, 83-87 (1925) (emphasizing that “colored” people were of the “brown, yellow, or black races).

[13] E.g., Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 233-48 (1944) (Murphy, J. and Jackson, J., dissenting) (showing that Korematsu’s imprisonment, and the imprisonment of United States-born people of Japanese ancestry was race-based).

[14] See generally Sumi Cho, Converging Stereotypes in Racialized Sexual Harassment: Where the Model Minority Meets Suzie Wong, in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge 669-678 (Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic eds., 3d ed. 2013) (showing the present impacts of the historical commodification of Eastern Asian women’s bodies).

[15] E.g., David Vine, My Body was not Mine, but the US Military’s, Politico: The War Room (Nov. 3, 2015) https://www.politico.eu/article/my-body-was-not-mine-but-the-u-s-militarys/; see also Synopsis: Madama Butterfly, The Metropolitan Opera (last visited Oct. 1, 2020) https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/madama-butterfly/ (showing the long history of United States’ servicemen’s exploitation of Eastern Asian women).

[16] See Synopsis: Madama Butterfly (mirroring established norms as modeled in Madama Butterfly).

[17] E.g., Vine supra note 15.

[18] E.g., Dan Lamothe, The U.S. Military’s Long Uncomfortable History with Prostitution Gets New Attention, The Washington Post: Military (Oct. 31, 2014) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/10/31/the-u-s-militarys-long-uncomfortable-history-with-prostitution-gets-new-attention/.

[19] E.g., Isa Cajulis, Filipinos on the Frontlines: Our Bodies Are Not Disposable, Plan A Magazine: Politics (Apr. 2020) (showing how the 1965 Immigration Act enabled Filipinx nurses to immigrate to the United States under false pretenses) https://planamag.com/filipinos-on-the-frontlines-our-bodies-are-not-disposable/.

[20] E.g., David Kern, Legacy of the Delano Grape Strike: 50 Years Later, San Francisco Chronicle: Opinion (Sep. 18, 2015) https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/article/50-years-after-the-Delano-grape-strike-6508846.php.

[21] E.g., Thomas J. Sugrue, Postscript: Grace Lee Boggs, The New Yorker: News Desk (Oct. 8, 2015) https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/postscript-grace-lee-boggs.

[22] May 19, 1921: Yuri Kochiyama Born, Zinn Education Project: This Day in History (last accessed Oct. 1, 2020) https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/yuri-kochiyama-was-born/.

[23] E.g., Ogbar, Jeffrey O.G., Yellow Power: The Formation of Asian-American Nationalism in the Age of Black Power, 1966-1975, 3 Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 29, 29-38 (2000)http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol3no3/vol3num3art3.pdf.

[24] See Tessler, H., Choi, M., and Kao G., The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Am J Crim Justice. 2020 (Accessed Oct. 20, 2020) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7286555/.

[25] E.g., Taylor Romine, NYPD Creates Asian Hate Crime Task Force After Spike in anti-Asian Attacks During COVID-19 Pandemic, CNN (Aug. 18, 2020) https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/18/us/nypd-asian-hate-crime-task-force/index.html.

[26] E.g., Maiana Chen, Teen Suspects Arrested, Charged After 89-Year-Old Woman Set on Fire in Brooklyn, NextShark: News (Sep. 2020) https://nextshark.com/bensonhurst-brooklyn-suspects-arrested-89-year-old-grandma/; E.g., Maiana Chen, #TheyCantBurnUsAll Movement Makes Its Way to Los Angeles and San Francisco, NextShark: News (Sep. 2020) https://nextshark.com/theycantburnusall-rally-los-angeles-san-francisco/ .

[27] #TheyCantBurnUsAll, Twitter, (Accessed Oct. 22, 2020) https://twitter.com/hashtag/theycantburnusall?lang=en (showing how East Asians have used this hashtags to highlight COVID-19 related hate crimes).

[28] E.g., “Inadmissibility Based on Membership in a Totalitarian Party”, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (Oct. 2, 2020) https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/policy-manual-updates/20201002-PartyMembership.pdf.

[29] E.g., U.S. Bans Communist Immigrants from Ever Becoming Citizens, TeleSur News: U.S. (Oct. 5, 2020) https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/US-Bans-Communist-Immigrants-From-Ever-Becoming-US-Citizens-20201005-0014.html.

[30] See generally Claire Jean Kim, The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans, 27 Politics & Society, 105-38 (1999).

[31] See generally Michel Martin, “Does the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ Shut Asian Americans Out Of Top Jobs?”, NPR: Tell Me More, (May 24, 2014), https://www.npr.org/2014/05/23/315129852/does-a-bamboo-ceiling-shut-asian-americans-out-of-top-jobs.