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May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States.


Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) are people who were born in the United States or became U.S. citizens and trace their ancestors to Asia or Pacific islands. As of 1999 they make up about 4 percent of the population and are fastest-growing minority group. APAs are concentrated in America's largest metropolitan areas such as LA, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Houston. Especially here in California, they will be 13.2 percent of state residents in 2001, compared with 9.6 percent in 1990.

Many Americans mistakenly think that APAs are mostly recent immigrants. While some of them are indeed recent immigrants, many APAs have been here for hundreds years. In fact, some of the earliest Asians arrived in the American continent in the seventeenth century by way of the Spanish galleon trade across the Pacific Ocean. As early as 1763 there was a recorded settlement of Filipinos in Louisiana and 1790 saw the first recorded arrival of Asian Indians in the United States.

Between 1800 and 1860 the U.S. has underwent a dramatic transformation to market and industrial economy. Asians as well as Europeans provided essential labor to industrialize young America. Chinese workers constructed the western half of the first transcontinental railroad linking the emerging U.S. markets and providing a gateway to the Pacific. The Chinese were soon followed by the Japanese and people from other Asian countries. In addition, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean laborers were hired to work in Hawaii and California to alleviate the chronic labor shortage in the agricultural industry in the 19th and 20th century.

However, As Asian immigration increased and the labor shortage became alleviated, racist laws were passed to place restrictions on land ownership, citizenship, occupations and immigration. For example, in 1882 Chinese were specifically excluded by federal law from immigrating to the United States. During World War II, over 120,000 Japanese Americans, unlike Americans of German or Italian origins, were incarcerated and prohibited from living, working or traveling on the West Coast.

Ever since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 that eliminated the unfair national origins quotas (In the 1940s, Korea and Japan had none, and China had a quota of 105, while Poland had 6,524), there has been a dramatic growth in the Asian Pacific American population. The second wave of Asian immigration brought in relatively skilled and well educated immigrants from China, Korea, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

Asia is world' largest continent, so not surprisingly APAs are quite diverse. For instance, Japanese Americans are predominantly American-born, but most Southeast Asian Americans are foreign born. Filipinos are seldom engaged in self-employment, but Koreans have the highest self-employment rate among all recent immigrant groups. A large number of Asian Indian men marry Mexican women. Unlike other Asian groups, many Vietnamese live in the Gulf Coast. What diversity!


Written by Saekyun H. Lee