Amerasian children

Definition: According to definitions in congressional legislation of the 1980’s, "Amerasians” are the children of women of specified Asian nations and American men who were born during a certain time period. More generally, however, the term is often used colloquially to describe children of non-Asian U.S. citizens and Asian nationals

Significance: The vast majority of Amerasian children who immigrated to the United States after the early 1970’s were of American and Vietnamese descent. Those of American and Korean ancestry were a distant second. After 1987, Vietnamese Amerasians were permitted to immigrate to the United States and bring along close relatives, thereby adding to Vietnamese immigration to America.

Amerasian children

Barry Huntoon (left), an American VietnamWar veteran, with his wife and infant child in 1987, greet a teenage Amerasian girl whom Huntoon believed to be his daughter, born after he left Vietnam. However, the girl’s natural mother later denied Huntoon’s claim. Huntoon’s well-publicized story, later made into the 1990 television film The Girl Who Came Between Them, pointed up the difficulties of establishing the paternity of the many Amerasian children left behind by American war veterans. (AP/Wide World Photos)

After World War II ended in 1945, American troops remained stationed in East Asian countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. After the Korean War ended in 1953, additional troops remained stationed in South Korea. The years that followed saw an increase in the numbers of children born to American soldiers and local Asian women. The vast majority of the American fathers were European Americans and African Americans. Very often, these fathers abandoned their children and the children’s mothers when they returned to America. 

Amerasians and America

The plight of fatherless Korean American children moved American writer Pearl S. Buck to call attention to their neglect, and she chose the term "Amerasians” for them. In 1954, Harry and Bertha Holt promoted American adoption of KoreanWar orphans. Some of these orphans were abandoned Amerasians facing discrimination in Korea as honhyol, or "mixed blood” children.

From about 1962 to 1975, as the United States became more deeply involved in the VietnamWar, relationships between American men and Vietnamese women increased. On average, relationships in which children were born lasted about two years. As American military authorities discouraged American-Vietnamese marriages, only the most determined Americans brought their Vietnamese wives and Amerasian children home to the United States, where these immigrants constituted the vast majority of the 20,000 residents of the country who were counted as Vietnamese by early 1975.

After the communist victory in Vietnam in early 1975, the situation inVietnam for Amerasians deteriorated badly. Even before that time, life had been difficult for them after their fathers left the country. The communists, however, made their lives even harder by showing active hostility toward the children of their American enemies, and they discriminated severely against them and their mothers. Called con lai, "half-breeds,” or bui doi, "children of the dust,” the children were bullied and rejected and denied good educations and job opportunities — which were already scarce under communism. 

Immigration Rights for Amerasians

When the plight of Vietnamese refugees known who tried to leave their homeland by sea caught the free world’s attention after 1978, the U.S. government became willing to admit them as refugees. The first Vietnamese Amerasian children arrived together with other Vietnamese refugees through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) after 1979. However, this program did not address all the special needs of the Amerasian children. For three years, U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton introduced and fought for what would become the Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982. On October 22, 1982, that act became law.

The first of two important pieces of federal legislation on this issue during the 1980’s, the Amerasian Immigration Act defined Amerasians as children whose fathers were U.S. citizens and whose mothers were nationals of Kampuchea (Cambodia), Korea, Laos, Thailand, or Vietnam, and who had been born between January 1, 1950, and October 22, 1982. This definition of Amerasian was a narrow legal term. Critics of the law objected that it did not immediately award citizenship to the Amerasians it defined, and that children of American fathers and women from Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines were not considered Amerasians under the law.

The first five hundred Amerasian children admitted to the United States under the 1982 law left Vietnam in 1982 and 1983. As many as 5,500 Vietnamese Amerasians also left under the ODP. Soon, however, the Vietnamese government objected to the U.S. government’s calling these people "refugees” and halted their departure. The 1982 law also allowed only the children to immigrate, leaving behind their mothers in favor of American institutional or private sponsors if the children were under eighteen years of age. This provision explains why relatively few Amerasians from Korea and other eligible nations immigrated under this law.

The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987, which was enacted on December 22, 1987, corrected some of the deficiencies of the 1982 law. Under this new legislation, all children born to American fathers and Vietnamese mothers between January 1, 1962, and January 1, 1976, and their close relatives could immigrate to America.

The 1987 law quickly turned Amerasians in Vietnam from despised "children of dust” to "children of gold.” Some ordinary Vietnamese posed as relatives of Amerasians in order to go to the United States. By 2009, it was estimated that almost all eligible Vietnamese American children who wanted to leave Vietnam had done so. About 25,000 had immigrated under the Homecoming Act and as many as another 10,000 may have entered the country through other means. Additionally, Vietnamese Amerasians facilitated the immigration of some 60,000 to 70,000 of their Vietnamese relatives. 

Adjusting to Life in America

The majority of Amerasians admitted through the immigration laws of 1982 and 1987 generally succeeded in America. However, they did so only after adjusting to the English language and American culture and overcoming their limited formal educations, traumatized lives, and issues of abandonment and discrimination. Moreover, only about 3 percent of them could locate their American fathers. Those who came with their mothers and already had some command of English were among the most successful. Alcoholism, depression, drugs, and crime troubled some Amerasians, but most eventually adapted well.

Through the 1990’s and the early twenty-first century, there were persistent efforts by U.S. lawmakers to widen the definition of Amerasian children eligible for immigration or to bestow automatic citizenship to them. However, none of these efforts had succeeded by the year 2009.

Many Asian Americans have objected to the colloquial use of the term "Amerasian” for all children of non-Asian American fathers and foreign Asian women, arguing that such usage implies that Asian Americans are not real Americans. The 2007 American Community Survey listed 1,707,488 Asian Americans living in the United States who were also descended fromone or more other racial heritages. Among these people, about 170,000 were foreign born, and 66 percent of them—112,200 people—were born in Asia. Under the broadest, if controversial, definition of the term, they might also be called "Amerasians.” 

R. C. Lutz

Further Reading

Gage, Sue-Je Lee. "The Amerasian Problem: Blood, Duty, and Race.” International Relations 21, no. 1 (2007): 86-102. Scholarly analysis of the passage of the Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982 that is strong on the U.S. background regarding Amerasians. The author criticizes the law’s exclusion of Japanese and Filipino Amerasians.

Lamb, David. "Children of the Dust.” Smithsonian 40, no. 3 (June, 2009): 28-37. Informed journalistic overview of the fates of Vietnamese Amerasians and the key events facilitating their immigration to America. Praises the immigrants’ general resilience and corrects stereotypes. Illustrated.

McKelvey, Robert. The Dust of Life: America’s Children Abandoned in Vietnam. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. Powerful and sympathetic portrayal of the fate of Vietnamese Amerasians before, during, and after their immigration to the United States.

Nguyen, Kien. The Unwanted. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2001. Autobiography of a Vietnamese Amerasian left in Vietnam after 1975, his sufferings, resentments, and eventual immigration to the United States.

Yarborough, Trin. Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War. Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2005. Portrayal of five Vietnamese Amerasian children and their challenging lives in Vietnam and, after immigration, in America.

See also: Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987; Asian immigrants; Child immigrants; Families; Intermarriage; Korean War; Nguyen v. Immigration and Naturalization Service; Orderly Departure Program; Refugees; Vietnam War; Vietnamese immigrants.

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Angel Island Immigration Station

Identification: Federal government’s main immigrant processing and detention center on the West Coast

Date: Operated from 1910 until 1940

Location: California’s San Francisco Bay

Significance: Angel Island served as the West Coast port of entry for Pacific Rim immigrants arriving in the United States between 1910 and 1940. The station also functioned as an interrogation and detention center during the height of national hostility toward Chinese and other Asians seeking new lives in the United States.

Angel Island Immigration Station

Angel Island immigration reception center in 1915. (Library of Congress)

Sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West, the Angel Island immigration station was not precisely a West Coast counterpart of the East Coast’s main immigrant processing center. In fact, owing to the anti-Asian immigration laws in force during the center’s years of operation, Angel Island officials often devoted themselves to keeping newcomers out of the United States, rather than welcoming them in.

Early History of the Island

The largest island in California’s San Francisco Bay, Angel Island is a natural land mass of 1.2 square miles located about one mile from the mainland of Marin County, north of San Francisco. In sharp contrast to the much smaller and mostly flat Ellis Island, Angel Island is dominated by an 800-foot-high peak. After serving for thousands of years as hunting and fishing territory for the coastal Miwok people, the island came under Spanish colonial control during the late eighteenth century and passed to the United States in 1848, after the Mexican War. In 1863, the U.S. Army established a camp on the island and built artillery installations along its shore. The island served as a departure and homecoming port for troops during the Spanish-American War and both world wars. Some prisoners of war were detained on the island, and the Army operated a quarantine station there for many years.

In 1905, the federal government decided to expand beyond military use of the island by building an immigration facility near an inlet called China Cove on the island’s northeast coast. Opened for business five years later, the Angel Island Immigration Station became the principal site where U.S. officials detained and interrogated thousands of new arrivals from China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Unlike European immigrants, who were welcomed to the United States after cursory examinations, Asian immigrants passing through Angel Island experienced targeted discrimination in the form of exclusion policies mandated by U.S. laws originally enacted during the 1880’s.

Chinese immigration

Large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States had begun in 1848, at the start of the California gold rush. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers dug for gold, built railroads, and worked for rock-bottom wages at many other jobs, often sending remittance money home to families in China. Meanwhile, they encountered widespread hostility from Americans of European ancestry, many of whom feared competition from cheap Asian labor. In 1882, the Chinese became targets of federal anti-immigration legislation in the formof the Chinese Exclusion Act, which one U.S. senator denounced as "legalization of racial discrimination.” The act barred all Chinese laborers and most other Chinese from entering the United States, and placed numerous restrictions on those already in the country. China at this time was a politically weak nation, unable to protest the discriminatory treatment its sons and daughters received in the United States, so the policy faced no effective international challenges and was later renewed.

After 1910, immigration officials at Angel Island developed elaborate procedures to identify and deport would-be immigrants from China who sought ways around the ban on their immigration. The immigrants knew that the Exclusion Act could not apply to the children of American citizens, so if Chinese Americans born in the United States had offspring in China, those children should have the legal right to enter the United States. After many public records were destroyed by San Francisco’s great earthquake and fire of 1906, it became common for young men in China to buy documents that identified them as American citizens by claiming U.S.-born Chinese men as their fathers. Immigration officials at Angel Island had no way to tell "paper sons” from real sons, so they detained many male immigrants for weeks or months and tried to expose them as frauds by quizzing them in minute detail about such topics as family histories and ancestral villages. Typical interrogations included questions about habits or facial characteristics of relatives and odd bits of information about the histories and customs of the home villages. Immigrants prepared for weeks for the dreaded Angel Island interrogations, which were conducted through interpreters and could result in deportation because of misunderstandings or miscommunication. Chinese women immigrating as wives or daughters of American-born Chinese experienced similar detentions and interrogation. Whole families in detention were frequently separated and housed according to sex, a policy that was particularly hard on young children.

A small number of immigrant detainees were held for more than two years and interrogated numerous times. Despair was common among these long-term detainees, several of whom committed suicide during the center’s years of operation. Some detainees at Angel Island responded to their imprisonment and interrogation by composing poems that they painted or carved on walls inside the immigration station’s detention barracks.

Japanese immigration

During the early twentieth century, the Japanese population in the United States was less than one quarter that of the country’s Chinese population, but the Japanese also endured anti-Asian prejudice. However, because Japan was then a more powerful country than China, the U.S. government tried to avoid formal exclusion of Japanese immigrants. Nevertheless, in 1907, a Gentlemen’s Agreement forged between the United States and Japan created severe restrictions on further Japanese immigration. At Angel Island, Japanese men and women met with detention and interrogation techniques similar to those used on the Chinese.

During the early twentieth century, many Japanese arrivals at Angel Island were "picture brides” who had never met the husbands who arranged for their passage to America. It was common for Japanese men living in the United States to find brides in Japan by employing traditional matchmakers and exchanging photographs. After surrogate weddings, the newlywed women could embark for America and present themselves to immigration officials as the wives of U.S. residents. Japanese "picture brides” were detained at Angel Island for medical examinations and other immigration procedures. If a new husband did not collect his bride in a timely fashion, the woman was deported. Some couples had to go through weddings performed by Christian ministers before the brides were formally admitted into the United States.

The federal government stopped processing immigrants through Angel Island in 1940, three years before Congress finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Angel Island was later transformed into a California state park, and its immigration station was made a National Historic Landmark. A restored barracks building houses a museum in which visitors can view the Chinese inscriptions on the walls.

Karen Manners Smith

Further Reading

Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University ofWashington Press, 1991. Scholarly treatment of the immigrant experience shaped through oral history and detainee poetry in Chinese and English translation.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994. Asians in the broader context of U.S. national and international history.

Soennichsen, John. Miwoks to Missiles: A History of Angel Island. San Francisco: Angel Island Association, 2001. Popular history of Angel Island, including military uses of the island as well as the history of the immigration station.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Highly readable background for the Asian immigrant experience in the United States. Covers local Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino immigrant history.

See also: Asian immigrants; California; Chinese immigrants; Deportation; Ellis Island; Japanese immigrants; Korean immigrants; Paper sons; Picture brides; San Francisco.

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Asian American literature

Through their writing, Asian American authors have portrayed the Asian immigrant experience as seen by themselves rather than through the eyes of American mainstream press and literature.

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Asian immigrants

Through almost an entire century after the first wave of Chinese immigrants to California laid a strong foundation of Asian immigration during the 1850’s...

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Contract labor system

During the mid-nineteenth century, a labor shortage in the western United States led to creation of a contract labor system to help the mining and railroad industries attract cheap immigrant labor to the United States.

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Credit-ticket system

During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the fares Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean to the United States paid ranged from fifteen to forty-five dollars—amounts that few Chinese workers could afford.

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S. I. Hayakawa

S. I. HayakawaA notable scholar of semantics, Hayakawa also had a political career. He represented California in the U.S. Senate, where he launched a movement to establish English as the official language of the United States by introducing the English Language Amendment in 1981.

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Immigration Act of 1907

This law created the Dillingham Commission to collect data used in future immigration laws, further narrowed Asian immigration, limited Muslim immigration, and expanded the definition of undesirable women immigrants.

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Immigration Act of 1917

The Law: Federal law imposing major new restrictions on categories of people allowed to immigrate

Date: Went into effect on May 1, 1917

Significance: The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed "undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, with his wife, Edith, at his second inauguration in 1917. Wilson twice vetoed the Immigration Act of 1917, only to see Congress pass it over his objections. (Library of Congress)

Through the first century of American independence, immigration into the United States was largely unrestricted. This open-door policy began to change during the 1870’s and 1880’s, with the introduction of federal legislation aimed at barring two classes of immigrants: Asian laborers to California and immigrants deemed physically and mentally "undesirable.” In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar the immigration of Chinese workers and a general immigration act to bar the immigration of persons judged likely to become "public charges.”

The general Immigration Act of 1882 also imposed a "head tax” of fifty cents on each immigrant. The U.S. Congress, which was constitutionally empowered to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over immigration, continued to increase restrictions through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The head tax was increased to four dollars by the Immigration Act of 1907. The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended and tightened in legislation enacted in 1884, 1888, 1892, and 1902. In the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, Japan agreed to bar its citizens from emigrating to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 added more categories of people to the list of "undesirable aliens,” including persons with contagious diseases and polygamists. The Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910 added rules to exclude persons with mental and physical defects, persons with tuberculosis, and anarchists. However, congressional provisions to add a literacy requirement to the immigration laws were vetoed by Presidents Grover Cleveland in 1896, William Howard Taft in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson in 1915.

Provisions of the 1917 Law

The Immigration Act of 1917 updated and codified much of the previous immigration legislation, thereby effectively repealing the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910. President Wilson vetoed the law, but Congress overrode his veto and the act went into effect on May 1, 1917. A long and comprehensive piece of legislation, the act contained thirty-eight subsections and took up twenty-five pages in the Congressional Session Laws.

The law was significant in five major areas; it

  • increased the head tax 
  • expanded categories of "undesirable aliens” 
  • excluded South Asian immigrants 
  • added a literacy requirement 
  • contained new enforcement provisions 

The new law increased the head tax levied on every adult immigrant to eight dollars and required liens to be was placed on passenger ships for nonpayment. The law’s expansion of categories of "undesirables” who would be barred fromentry reflected new theories of comparative psychology. The act excluded so-called "idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons;” persons of "constitutional psychopathic inferiority;” "mentally or physically defective” persons; the insane; alcoholics; persons with epilepsy, tuberculosis; or contagious diseases; paupers and vagrants; criminals; prostitutes; anarchists; polygamists; political radicals; and contract laborers.

The Immigration Act of 1917 also barred most immigration from Asia. Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the "Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Reflecting public hostility to southern and eastern European immigrants, the act required all adult immigrants to demonstrate an ability to read. Any language sufficed. Finally, the act contained extensive provisions for enforcement. Penalties were imposed on any persons or corporations who encouraged or assisted the immigration of persons barred by the act or contract laborers. The act required all ships carrying immigrants to provide detailed information about each passenger’s name, age, sex, physical description, literacy, nationality, destination, occupation, mental and physical health, and criminal record. Immigration inspectors, medical examiners, and Boards of Special Inquiry were authorized to carry out these regulations and decide on the admissibility of immigrants.

Impact of the Law

The act of 1917 represented a further tightening of the immigrant restrictions begun by Congress during the 1870’s. Although the 1880’s witnessed the exclusion of "undesirables” and Chinese and the imposition of a head tax, the 1917 act greatly expanded these restrictions. The list of undesirables was couched in vague terms of mental and physical health, and could thus be interpreted in almost unlimited ways. The eight-dollar head tax was a significant levy on impoverished immigrants. The literacy requirement, which had been vetoed by three presidents, appeared to be a significant impediment to many immigrants. Heavy penalties and fines were imposed on any persons who seemingly assisted immigration in violation of the law. This expansion of restrictions can be explained, in part, by the rise of psychological and eugenics theories categorizing inferior individuals and races and nativist sentiments exacerbated by World War I.

The restrictions culminating in the 1917 act ultimately proved to be more qualitative than quantitative. In fact, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw the greatest numbers of immigrants up to that time: 8,795,386 people entered the United States between 1901 and 1910, and another 5,735,811 entered between 1911 and 1920. In the fiscal year between July, 1920, and June, 1921, more than 800,000 immigrants entered the country. Only about 1,450 persons were actually excluded by the literacy test. The 1917 act prefigured but differed from the immigration quotas that would be imposed by new immigration laws during the 1920’s. These quotas greatly restricted immigration for the first time in American history and did so in an attempt to preserve the ethnic heritage of the United States as it was perceived at the turn of the century.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill&Wang, 2004. General history of immigration restrictions. Notes that the 1917 law represented the first major categorical restriction of immigration in American history. 
  • Hing, Bill Ong. Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Chapter 3, on the 1917 literacy test, sees its origins in American animosity toward Italian and Jewish immigrants. 
  • King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Scholarly study of the history of immigration that describes the 1917 act as replacing the tenet of individual selection for admission with group criteria. 
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Highlights the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone as a milestone in restricting Asian immigration. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Historical study of the relationship between immigration law and policy and notions of American sovereignty. Portrays the Asiatic Barred Zone as the predecessor of the quota laws of the 1920’s and the literacy test as motivated by exclusionary rather than educational sentiments. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Asiatic Barred Zone; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration law; Literacy tests.

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Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

This federal law upheld the national origins quota system established by the Immigration Act of 1924, which gave preference to individuals of northern and western European lineage.

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Indonesian immigrants

Indonesia is made up of a large number of populated islands located south of Southeast Asia’s Malay Peninsula.

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Indonesian immigrants: Barack Obama and Indonesia

Although Indonesia’s ties with the United States have historically been limited, the Southeast Asian nation has a special connection with the forty-fourth president of the United States.

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