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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1263-1272
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Reinventing Immigration Studies
Rachel Ida Buff
These two important books come at a transformative time in the ways academics think about immigration. In the current era, immigrants—as labor sojourners, urban migrants, detainees, undocumented workers, transnational wives and mothers, refugees—are both the subjects and agents of profound transnational political and economic change. Studies of immigration, in turn, have slowly moved away from a nation-based paradigm focused predominantly on the arrival of new immigrants, the appeal of the United States as a receiving community, and the processes of assimilation and acculturation so central to both academic studies and immigration and naturalization policies throughout the twentieth century. A more global concept of immigration dictates different questions and approaches. Three central and related shifts represented by these books include: the ascendance of a transnational rather than a national model of migration, the shift from "ethnicity theory" to a racial formation model in understanding the social construction of immigrant identity, and the emergence of gender and sexuality as key categories to the social process of immigration. These trends are currently transforming studies of immigration and the possibilities of such studies for teaching, research, and public intellectual engagement.
Transnationalism changes our conceptual map of immigration history. The shift to view immigration in a transnational context has come, in large part, as scholarly attention has moved to consider post-1965 immigrants, with their often rapid travel and communication between "sending" and "receiving" communities, frequently within the Western hemisphere. But careful studies have [End Page 1263] also documented the ongoing transnational connections and return migrations of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century immigrants. Work by scholars such as Carmen Theresa Whalen, Amitava Kumar, Donna Gabaccia, Erika Lee, Irma Watkins-Owens, and Matthew Frye Jacobson has transformed some of the traditional questions of immigration studies by locating both public policy and the experience of migration transnationally.1
Both Beyond the Shadow of Camptown and Buddha Is Hiding deal with im/migrant groups—refugees and military brides—overlooked in traditional immigration studies. Just the addition of these groups, made invisible by the American exceptionalist paradigm of pull factors and assimilation, is a welcome contribution in both cases. But both Aihwa Ong and Ji-Yeon Yuh construct fascinating and useful conceptual frameworks in which to understand the experiences of these understudied groups. Refugees and military brides, both identities constituted in the global circulation of capital and military power, are inherently transnational populations. While each of these books deploys an ethnographic methodology, interviewing refugees and military brides in the United States, each also considers the construction of the transnational subjectivities of these im/migrants.
Transnational thinking starkly reveals long-overlooked connections between immigration policy and foreign policy. In focusing on what she appropriately calls "military" rather than "war" brides, Ji-Yeon Yuh also traces the history of U.S. military involvement in Korea, from the Korean War era to the present. Her shift in terminology, from "military" to "war" bride, is a deceptively simple move. Beginning with World War II, military and immigration authorities dealt with "war brides" as exceptions to prevailing policy. Spouses and children of GIs were treated differently than were their country people: they were given free passage to the United States, exempted from the scrutiny on grounds of "moral turpitude" so prohibitive to immigrant women, and, important for still-barred Asians, allowed to pass through a legal edifice that delimited their access to immigration and naturalization. The otherwise racially restrictive McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952 both abolished the long-standing ban on Asian naturalization and consolidated the various laws and exceptions made for "war brides" into an enduring policy for the special consideration of the wives and minor children of servicemen. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean war...