Asian Women, US Immigration, and Citizenship

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ASIANS HAVE BEEN THE ONLY RACIAL or ethnic group in the
United States to be excluded by name from immigrating to
the United States. In Asian American Studies, we usually
point to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as the first
instance of Asian exclusion, but the first national law to
bar Asian immigration was actually passed in 1875 and
directly excluded Chinese women. In 1875, Congress
passed the Page Law, which prohibited Chinese, Japanese,
and other “Oriental” women from immigrating to the
United States to be used as prostitutes. While purporting
to target only Chinese prostitutes, all Chinese women were
considered to be sexually immoral.
The law effectively barred almost all single Asian
women from immigrating to the United States, setting the
context for why Asian communities in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries were primarily bachelor communities.
Between 1875 and 1882, only about 1,340 Chinese
women entered the United States, but more than 100,000
Chinese men entered. Fifteen years after the Page Law was
enacted, the sex ratio of Chinese men to women was 27 to
1. The Page Law coupled with the Chinese Exclusion Act
attempted to control the “Chinese problem” by literally
preventing its reproduction.
Examining certain laws from the perspective of white
women, rather than women of color or Asian women, can
also misconstrue how the US has historically barred Asian
women from US citizenship. In 1907, Congress passed the
Expatriation Act, which reasoned that wives took the
nationality of their husbands, so women who were US citizens
lost their US citizenship when they married foreign
men, who had not acquired naturalized citizenship or who
were ineligible for naturalized citizenship in the United
States. For Asian American women, who were US citizens
by birthright (Asians could not become naturalized citizens
during that time period), marrying an Asian immigrant
man would not only strip her of her US citizenship,
but make her ineligible for naturalized citizenship if she
were to divorce or become widowed.
The practice of stripping US citizenship from women
who married foreign men is assumed to have ended in
1922 with the Cable Act. The Cable Act is often considered
a legal victory for women, but it only ended marital
expatriation for white and black women who had married
white and black foreign men. While ending marital expatriation
for these women, the Cable Act also mandated
that women of any color be stripped of their US citizenship,
if they married men who were ineligible for US citizenship
(primarily Asian men).
While this act is well known in Asian American Studies
and Gender and Women’s Studies, its particular effect on
Asian American women is not often emphasized.
One such woman, Ng Fung Sing was an Asian American
woman born in the US, hence she had citizenship
since birth. Sing went to China with her parents, and
when she was twenty-two, she married a Chinese citizen,
who passed away only two years later.
Upon the death of her husband in 1925, Sing decided
to return to the United States, but she was unable to reenter
because she had been stripped of her US citizenship
due to her marriage and barred from naturalizing due to
her race. In other words, the Cable Act—seen as a legal
victory in Women’s Studies and understood as the federal
law that barred Asian men from forming families in Asian
American Studies—is also a particular instance of how
race and gender intersect to effectively render stateless
Asian American women US citizens. Asian women long
felt the consequence of this history, forced to grapple with
the racialized nature of their fragile citizenship.

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