- The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority by Madeline Y. Hsu
Situated during an era of unprecedented restriction, Cold War–era immigration to the United States has often been overlooked by historians. Most studies have focused on the mass migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Or they have concentrated on the more recent mass migrations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the ongoing debates over immigration. Forgotten has been both the movement of peoples to the United States and the laws and politics that supported that movement during the Cold War. Madeline Hsu’s book The Good Immigrants, is one of a number of recent studies that convincingly demonstrate just how important this neglected era was, both in terms of immigration and the ways it set the stage for the transformative changes in immigration and immigration policies that we have been experiencing in recent years.
Hsu focuses on the rehabilitation of Chinese immigrants who had long been considered one of the country’s “yellow perils” (along with Japanese and other Asians, such as South Asians, Koreans, and Filipinos) and their image nowadays as a “model minority.” Although stereotypes of Asian Americans as high-achieving, economically successful, and well-integrated immigrants dominate the news media today, these portrayals are a result of very recent history. This radical transformation was made possible only amid dramatic changes in immigration priorities and practices in the United States, Cold War international relations, and U.S. public opinion over racial inequalities. As a result, new possibilities were made available to Chinese immigrants.
With helpful tables and drawing from an impressive range of archival collections and other sources in the United States and Taiwan, The Good Immigrants makes several important contributions. The first is to call attention not only to the “gates” that the United States erected to keep out certain foreigners, especially Asian immigrants during the era of Asian Exclusion (1882–1943), but also the “gateways” that have selectively admitted—sometimes after recruiting—educated and professional foreigners with skills needed in the United States. In this framework, immigration is both a restrictive and a selective process. Those who are given preferential treatment are allowed in through the “front gate” with access to permanent legal residency, or through a “side door” as temporary employees with H-1B visas who can subsequently gain access to permanent status. In contrast, those who are not perceived as having the right educational or professional skills (or enough capital) are relegated to “back-door” immigration as low-priority immigrants.
The book’s second major contribution is to connect immigration to the United States—often viewed only as a domestic matter—to international relations. Building on recent studies that have demonstrated how international politics has shaped immigration priorities and patterns, The Good Immigrants delves deeply into the case [End Page 171] of Chinese students to make this even clearer, and in its third contribution places students and intellectuals at the center of Asian-American history, a field long dominated by narratives of working-class immigrants. With Chinese students the focus of U.S. foreign relations prerogatives, U.S. educational and cultural exchanges became a means to advance U.S. foreign policy interests and then to recruit foreign talent for the benefit of the U.S. economy. This is how Nobel Prize–winning physicists Li Zengdao and Yang Zhenning arrived and stayed in the United States after the Chinese Communist revolution. But as Hsu demonstrates, the United States has a long history of recognizing and acting upon the strategic value of educating Chinese.
Lastly, Hsu insists on the importance of the Cold War in ushering in the transformative changes in immigration that allowed for both new Asian immigration and new social acceptance of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Piecemeal immigration laws such as the Refugee Act of 1953 gave some Asians preferential access to immigration and permanent residency. Cold War alliances with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and India also facilitated the rehabilitation and racial...