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  • A Theory of Asian Immigration to the United States
  • Philip Q. Yang (bio)

Asian immigration has been an integral part of immigration to the United States since the mid-nineteenth century and one of the two dominant sources of post-1965 immigration to America. Before the 1965 immigration reform, more than one million Asians had immigrated to the United States. Since 1965, over nine million Asians have immigrated to this land of opportunity.1 Since the majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born, immigration is a very important part of their experience.2 However, the theoretical base for understanding Asian immigration remains weak. As reviewed below, currently there exist mostly some underdeveloped propositions, assumptions, assertions, or explanations concerning why Asians immigrate to America, often bounded by a specific level of analysis, a specific part of the migration process, a specific discipline, and/or a specific time period. There is no single, coherent, well-developed theory of Asian immigration to the United States that takes into account multilevel processes, multiple causes, initiating and sustaining forces, and historical and contemporary flows. A full understanding of Asian immigration to the United States calls for a synthetic theory that incorporates all important determinants at different levels for both historical and contemporary periods. The lack of a single comprehensive theory incorporating multilevel processes, multiple causes, initiating and sustaining forces, and historical and contemporary flows is not just a prime weakness of the literature on Asian immigration to the United States, but [End Page 1] remains a major limitation in the literature on international migration in general as well, despite some progress as reviewed below. Hence, the significance of developing a synthetic theory of Asian immigration to the United States may very well go beyond the field of Asian immigration to the general field of international migration, of course with some apropos modifications of the theory.3

The goal of this essay is to develop a comprehensive theoretical framework to account for Asian immigration to the United States. Toward this end, this essay critically reviews contesting theories of international migration to lay out the broader backdrop relevant to later discussions, examines existing explanations of Asian immigration to the United States, analyzes the need for a comprehensive theory of Asian immigration, and formulates a synthetic theory to explain Asian immigration.

Theories of International Migration

To better understand the causes of Asian immigration to the United States, it is necessary to gain a general understanding of why international migration takes place. Many theories have been proposed to answer this question. These theories may be grouped into four categories: classical push-pull theory, economic models, sociological models, and integrated theories. This section briefly assesses these theories.

Classic Push-Pull Theory

The earliest, classical approach to the explanation of migration is push-pull theory. This theory can be traced back to the pioneering work of Ernest Ravenstein, who analyzed internal migration in England from 1871 to 1881, and the refinement of American demographer Everett Lee, who formulated it as a general theory of migration for both internal migration and international migration.4 The basic idea is that migration takes place because push factors (for example, natural disasters, population pressures, economic hardships, political turmoil or disturbances, environmental disadvantages) in the place of origin push people to leave, and pull factors (for example, economic opportunities, political preferences, environmental advantages) in the place of destination attract people to that location. To Ravenstein, pull factors play a more important role than push factors in [End Page 2] causing migration.5 It is true that the most important factor motivating people to migrate is a desire to improve their lives rather than an escape from unpleasant conditions. However, push and pull factors are relative and may be considered two sides of the same coin since oftentimes a pull from the receiving country is also a push from the sending country along the same dimension (for example, a higher wage in the receiving country, a pull factor, means a lower wage in the sending country, a push factor). Lee also considered intervening obstacles between the place of origin and the place of destination such as distance between the two, other physical barriers, immigration laws, and so...


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