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The Space Between: The Politics of Immigration in Asian/Pacific Islander America

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 49-55 | 10.1353/plu.2010.0017

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I would like to thank Dr. Gabaccia for her intriguing essay on the origins of the term "nation of immigrants." It really has helped me think about immigration with more historical richness. In my own work, I examine what goes into transnational and diasporic identities. I understand transnational identities as those operating between the loyalties of two or more countries. Going against perhaps unidirectional ways of understanding the immigrant as a foreigner entering into a country, I understand the immigrant identity within a transnational framework where the immigrant negotiates between more than one country. In my larger work, I want to look at the space-between that emerges for many immigrants and transnational migrants as they attempt to imagine new spaces for themselves against the dominating structures of an American society. I find a transnational perspective useful because this sort of analysis examines the space-between—the sites of interaction that take place between differing cultural expectations of what goes into not only political but also personal belonging to a place. A transnational perspective allows us to address the realities of globalization by acknowledging the space-between as an ontological reality, which brings us into relation with those who can disrupt the seemingly fixed nature of nation-state identities.

In this response to Dr. Gabaccia's essay, I would like to take up the idea that America was built as "a nation of immigrants." I found it interesting that Dr. Gabaccia found that "emigrant" was used in a way to refer to foreigners "entering or living in the United States" (Gabaccia 13). "Emigrant" was also used to refer to slaves returning to Africa and American Indians on the Trail of Tears. Moreover, "emigrant" had a broader meaning that also included "colonizer and settler." In the United States, "emigrant" is understood to mean an internal migrant moving to different regions within the nation-state. The word "emigrant" started to become less prominent, and the word "immigrant" was to take its stead in this historical story. The word "immigrant" emerged as one of restriction and was used extensively in discussions of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act. In this sense, it is important to see how immigration emerged within a racialized discussion of Chinese laborers or "coolies." A nation of immigrants shifted away from these early associations of racism, U.S. orientalism, and exclusion, toward more celebratory models of inclusion, and the story Dr. Gabaccia tells is convincing, revealing the ultimate paradox of the phrase "a nation of immigrants." Is it supposed to be read as a nation that has been built on the backs of foreigners who overcame the problems of oppression, racism, and economic hardship? Or given the early associations to the emigrant, is it supposed to be read as a nation of colonizers and settlers?

In thinking about the paradox of the phrase a "nation of immigrants," I would like to discuss the politics of immigration within Asian/Pacific Islander America. Asian exclusion played an important role in thinking about the connotations of what immigration means in this country, and hence I would like to discuss the status and problems arising out of Asian immigration in the United States and how this impacts larger questions surrounding how America has come to know itself as a "nation of immigrants." In thinking about the immigrant as a transnational or diasporic subject, there are two types of identities that are, according to James Clifford, "caught up and defined against" these identities. They include (1) "norms of the nation-state" and (2) "indigenous, and especially autochthonous, claims by 'tribal' peoples" (Clifford 250). In the first section, I would like to discuss how Asian immigration can come to mean one that resists the "norms of the nation-state," thereby going against an assimilationist model of inclusion. However, the immigrant is also caught up in indigenous claims to sovereignty and the land itself, and so, in the second section, I would like to discuss the problems of Asian immigration in light of Indigenous Hawaiians' claims to sovereignty. In the final section, I would like to address questions for Dr. Gabaccia in thinking about the role of the immigrant and the first claims...



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