Center for Community Engagement

Smith College Professor Rethinks American Immigration Polices

Bonner Community Engagement Leader’s new speaker series brings the CCE and the classroom closer together

As immigration reform looms on the Congressional agenda, Amherst juniors Vickie Fang, Daniel Freije, and Swapnil Mehta, sought to historicize the debate and controversies surrounding the immigration issue, while further integrating the Center for Community Engagement into both the classroom and the community.  The three students, all Bonner Community Engagement Leaders at the CCE, tapped Hye-Kyung Kang, MA, MSW, Ph.D., a professor of social work at neighboring Smith College, to deliver a talk entitled the “Making of a Racialized (non)Citizen: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Policies from a Historical Perspective.”

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Kang’s talk ultimately argued that today’s racialized immigration policies, with regards to Hispanics and Latinos, were underwritten by generations of racially targeted immigration and naturalization law. Kang herself emigrated from Taiwan, and is now a naturalized United States citizen. She became interested in the racialization of immigration policy when a student asked her why there has been a president of Irish descent, but not a Chinese American one, even though both groups began immigrating to the United Sates around the same time.

Kang explained that American popular imagination transposes “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” literally onto American immigration’s history, which obscures its racialized reality. Kang proceeded to frame her argument against the backdrop of that iconic phrase, inscribed within the Statue of Liberty from Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus.  She systematically chronicled the major legislation and litigation that underpinned racialized immigration policies. Highlights included the landmark 1854 case The People v. Hall, which barred Chinese from testifying against whites, and California’s $2.50 per month tax on Chinese immigrants, first levied in 1862.

By presenting a thorough trajectory of United States immigration policies racialization, Kang ultimately argued that our current policies with regards to Latino and Hispanic immigrants are deeply rooted in race. Furthermore, she asserted that these policies are simply a continuation of previous trends. However, current policies are stripped of the overtly racialized language and tactics that characterized ninetieth, and even twentieth century immigration policies. By exposing the oft-ignored underpinnings of immigration policies, Kang hopes to help us move forward towards a policy that truly reflects American values and principles, and the phrase from Lazarus’ sonnet that adorns our iconic immigration monument.  

Many students, faculty, and community members attended the talk, held in Paino lecture hall, in the Earth Science and Natural History building at Amherst College. Audience members responded enthusiastically with questions for Kang, reflecting the relevance of her topic, and many remarked on the importance of brining these issues out into the open. A senior remarked “this talk is exactly what I hoped it would be, its great that we are talking about these issues.” Likewise, the Bonner Community Engagement Leaders were pleased with the event, the first in a speaker series that will bridge the gap between community engagement and the classroom, and, according to Mehta, to “integrate community service with people’s passions.” After a successful first run, the speaker series will become a regular occurrence on campus starting next fall.

Taylor A. Perkins ’11 is a staff writer for the CCE. He is a political science and black studies double major, and runs the quarter mile for the Amherst Track and Field team.