Centering War in the Study of Immigration History

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 10:30 AM - 11:00 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Immigration and Internal Migration; Military


In 2019, historian Ellen D. Wu issued a call to scholars to center war in the study of U.S. immigration history. This panel heeds that call. In so doing, it examines how military conflicts catalyzed global migrations and the responses of domestic and international policymakers to these population movements. At the same time, the panel also explores how international migration informed the emergence of militarized discourses and institutional practices at home and abroad. In their respective papers, S. Deborah Kang and Jana Lipman explore the political complexities surrounding the construction of the refugee subject in the aftermath of war. Set in the 1930s, Kang offers one of the first accounts of the White Russian refugees in the United States. Displaced from the Soviet Union due to their military defense of the Russian monarchy during the March Revolution and Russian Civil War, the White Russians, as a result of their staunch anti-communism, found many defenders in the United States who lobbied to suspend their deportation to the Soviet Union and facilitated the passage of an immigration legalization law that gave them a pathway to citizenship. Unable to obtain refuge in the United States, the Vietnamese refugees studied by Jana Lipman had lived in Hong Kong refugee camps for over a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. Seeking resettlement in a third country, the refugees and Vietnamese American advocates in the United States negotiated the often countervailing interests of policymakers in Washington, Hong Kong, and Hanoi. In her study of the Reagan administration’s asylum and refugee policies in the early 1980s, Kristina Shull focuses on the ways in which the presence of Central American asylum seekers in the United States led to the expansion of the nation’s immigration detention system. More broadly, Shull shows how immigration detention served not only to militarize immigration control but also bolster the administration’s counter-insurgency objectives during the Cold War. Finally, Ellen Wu recovers a forgotten moment in Asian American history by recounting how a 1973 partnership between the Office of Asian American Affairs (OAAA) in the Department of Health, Education, and Human Welfare and Seattle’s Demonstration Project for Asian Americans addressed the problem of domestic abuse faced by Korean War brides. Forged in opposition to the Vietnam War and out of sense of “Third World” solidarity, the OAAA helped to promote awareness of the relationship between war and migration and advance the political and social interests of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the United States.

Papers Presented

Between a Hot and a Cold War: The Legalization of the White Russian Refugees and the Development of American Refugee Law and Policy

In 1934, Congress passed a law that permitted the legalization of approximately 2,000 undocumented White Russian refugees living in the United States. Displaced from the Soviet Union due to their defense of the Russian monarchy during the March Revolution and Russian Civil War, the political status of the White Russians shifted over space and time as they sought safety, shelter, and, ultimately, membership and belonging in nations throughout the world. While the League of Nations eventually defined the White Russians as refugees under international law, American policymakers, attempting to halt the deportation of the White Russians to the Soviet Union, made the novel, yet tactical, choice to recast the White Russians as undocumented immigrants. In an era of intense anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the American defenders of the White Russians knew that Congress would refuse to pass any refugee law on their behalf; thus, the rescue of the White Russians hinged upon their redefinition as undocumented immigrants and the passage of a legalization law. Based upon the 2,000 untouched case files of the White Russians, this paper supplies a new account of the origins of American refugee law and policy. While most scholars claim that the passage of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act marked the beginnings of a domestic refugee law, I argue that its origins reside in the military conflicts that ravaged Europe earlier in the century and that these nascent forms of refugee policy anticipated the ideological concerns that drove American immigration policy from World War II onward.

Presented By
S. Deborah Kang, University of Texas at Dallas

In Camps: Vietnamese Activism in Hong Kong 1988–1997

More than ten years after the end of the Vietnam War, there were still 55,000 Vietnamese waiting in Hong Kong camps. Kept outside of the United States, these Vietnamese protested within the camps and created diasporic networks which reached the halls of Congress and the streets of Orange County. This paper demonstrates how the U.S. War in Vietnam continued to shape Vietnamese migration patterns (and politics) well into the 1990s. This paper begins in 1989 with the implementation of a regional agreement to categorize Vietnamese as “asylum seekers” rather than refugees. Hong Kong agreed not to “push off” boats, but instead created a “screening” process. Vietnamese who were “screened in” would gain refugee status and resettlement in a third country. Those who were “screened out” faced repatriation. Vietnamese in the camps and in the diaspora rejected this new policy, which kept Vietnamese in camps and returned them to Vietnam. The result was a steady stream of militant protests, hunger strikes, and opposition within the camps. In turn, Vietnamese American organizations mobilized financial resources, sent volunteers to the camps, and lobbied lawmakers in Washington, DC. The U.S. government took a contradictory position; it had stopped accepting large numbers of Vietnamese, and it opposed forcible repatriations back to Vietnam. The result was messy, emotional, and sometimes gut wrenching. The paper demonstrates how refugee camps in Hong Kong became key sites for debates over migration, detention, and repatriation in the late Cold War.

Presented By
Jana Kate Lipman, Tulane University

Reagan’s Cold War on Immigrants: Counterinsurgency and the Rise of a Detention Regime

The early 1980s marked an important turning point in U.S. history during a time of exceptional crisis—real and perceived, economic and social, domestic and international. This paper expands on histories of the revanchist politics of the neoliberal era, struggles for freedom, and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States by showing how migration and resistance to U.S. foreign policy and counter-insurgent wars abroad recast the U.S. immigration detention system. Upon inauguration, the Reagan administration adopted new detention policies to contain the perceived threat of asylum-seekers arriving from the Caribbean and Central America, a region tied together in the “Reagan imaginary” in myriad ways: as Cold War geopolitical strategy, communist threat, and economic development project. Displaced migrants themselves posed the greatest threat to U.S. imperial designs, their literal presence an embodiment of U.S. foreign policy failures. Migration “crises” played out in transnational solidarity movements, in the resistance and uprisings of migrants held in U.S. detention, in an upsurge in KKK activity and xenophobia in American communities, in the news media, and in policy deliberations. Official narratives of immigration crisis also reflect these power struggles by using rhetorics of war and counter-insurgency to silence dissent. Exploring the dialectical relationship between resistance and retaliation in immigration detention, this paper argues that detention itself is best understood as a form of counter-insurgency to reveal new dimensions of Reagan’s “Cold War” against U.S. enemies, domestic and foreign, and to place detention operations alongside the most insidious and lasting impacts of this era.

Presented By
Kristina Shull, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

War, Militarization, and the Origins of Asian America

My paper explores the 1973 partnership between the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s start-up Office of Asian American Affairs (OAAA) and Seattle’s Demonstration Project for Asian Americans to address the problems of Korean war brides (especially domestic abuse). This example highlights the significance of war and militarization in fashioning “Asian America” in the 1960 and 1970s. Opposition to the Vietnam War fired the awakening of “Asian American” political identity undergirded by a sense of anti-racist, anti-imperialist “Third World” solidarity. Asian Americans carried out this vision of racial kinship in various ways in the 1960s and 70s—most famously, anti-war protests and commemorations denouncing U.S. military presence throughout the Pacific Region, past and present. Nearly forgotten but entirely consequential were the efforts by Asian American “community brokers” to secure federal social welfare resources for immigrants and refugees—such as Korean war brides—damaged by U.S. foreign policy, wars, and military interventions. As the first federal-level agency charged specifically with addressing “Asian American” concerns, OAAA’s intentional embrace of Korean war brides (as well as migrant Samoans and Southeast Asian refugees) as Asian Americans was a critical conceptual move. It helped cement rhetorical expressions of “Third World” solidarity and racial kinship into federal minority rights and social welfare policy. In the long run, the OAAA’s staff expansive definition of “Asian America”—reflecting a heightened consciousness of the interconnected histories of war, militarization, race, and migration—ultimately trickled upwards and outwards with long-term consequences for the U.S. racial order and the affirmative action debate.

Presented By
Ellen D. Wu, Indiana University, Bloomington

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Anna On Ya Law, City University of New York, Brooklyn College
Anna Law holds the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights at CUNY Brooklyn College. Her publications appear in social science, law, and history journals and investigate the interaction between law, history, and politics. Her first book, The Immigration Battle in American Courts (Cambridge University Press 2010), examined the role of the federal judiciary in U.S. immigration policy, and the institutional evolution of the Supreme Court and U.S. Courts of Appeals. Law is a former program analyst at the bipartisan, blue-ribbon United States Commission on Immigration Reform. She has shared her expertise with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Department of Homeland Security and National Science Foundation. In 2007, she appeared as a recurring narrator with other academic experts and two Supreme Court justices in the PBS award winning documentary. Her current projects include a solo monograph on immigration federalism and slavery, and a National Science Foundation funded project with co-PI Karen Musalo on gender based asylum.

Presenter: S. Deborah Kang, University of Texas at Dallas
An associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, S. Deborah Kang received her B.A. from the College Scholar Program at Cornell University, and an M.A. from the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program and Ph.D. in United States History from the University of California at Berkeley. Published by Oxford University Press in 2017, her first book, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954, won the Henry Adams Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government, the Theodore Saloutos Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, the W. Turrentine Jackson Award from the Western History Association, and the Americo Paredes Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book on Chicano/a, Mexican American and/or Latino/a Studies. It was also recognized as a Finalist for the 2018 Weber-Clements Book Prize by the Western History Association. Her current research focuses on the relationship between law and society along the nation’s northern and southern borders and has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and the US Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego.

Presenter: Jana Kate Lipman, Tulane University
An associate professor of History at Tulane University, Jana Lipman is a specialist in the 20th-century U.S., especially foreign relations, social and political history, Cuba and Vietnam. She is interested in US foreign relations broadly construed. Her work on the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) demonstrated how neocolonialism, empire, and revolution functioned in working people's lives. Through extensive field and archival research in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo, Cuba, she analyzed how Cuban base employees navigated the politics and contradictions of living in Cuba and working for the US military. Her current book project examines the history of Vietnamese refugee camps in Guam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Her research interests include the fields of refugee studies, human rights, and US military bases in the second half of the twentieth century.

Presenter: Kristina Shull, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
A postdoctoral fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, Kristina Shull is a public historian and interdisciplinary scholar specializing in race, foreign relations, immigration control, and prison privatization in the modern United States. She received her Ph.D. in History from UC Irvine. Her book manuscript, Invisible Bodies: Immigration Crisis and Private Prisons Since the Reagan Era, explores the concurrent rise of immigration detention and prison privatization in the early 1980s at the intersections of Cold War nationalism and growing public xenophobia after the Vietnam War. It illustrates the mutually constitutive relationship between migration and foreign policy, and the immigrant detention center as a transnational, imperial space. The book concludes that limiting the visibility of migrant populations was an integral part of Reagan’s rightward shift from a “welfare” to a “warfare” state during this time, as many of the enforcement structures established to address a perceived immigration crisis and to silence opposition movements further accelerated the rise of mass incarceration. Shull is the creator of IMM Print and Climate Refugee Stories; in 2016 she was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations for her work in immigration detention storytelling.

Presenter: Ellen D. Wu, Indiana University, Bloomington
Ellen Wu is Associate Professor, Department of History, Director of Asian American Studies Program, and Affiliated Faculty, Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society at Indiana University Bloomington.

The issues that animate her research grapple with problems of race, citizenship, and migration through the lens of Asian American history. Her first book, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, 2014), tells of the astonishing makeover of Asians in the United States from the “yellow peril” to “model minorities” in the middle decades of the twentieth century. It charts this transformation within the dual contexts of the United States’ global rise and the black freedom movement. The Color of Success reveals that this far-reaching, politically charged process continues to have profound implications for how Americans understand race, opportunity, and nationhood.

Her current book project, Overrepresented, places Asian Americans at the center of the intersecting histories of race-making, policy, and democracy in the age of affirmative action. Overrepresented takes a multidisciplinary approach to examining the problem of Asian American social standing and opportunity in the face of sweeping changes over the past half-century: the rise of affirmative action and kindred policies intended to promote racial equality, large-scale immigration from Asia, and widening economic inequalities. Together, these challenges prompt a rethinking of what it means to be a “minority” in post-civil rights America.