Paper Students: Early Korean Immigrants Traversing the American State

Sunmin Kim, Dartmouth College
Carolyn Choi, UCLA

In the early twentieth century, Asian migrants were categorically excluded from entering the United States under the Asiatic Barred Zone, with exceptions granted to diplomats, naturalized persons, and international students. While Asian American historical scholarship has focused on the phenomenon of “paper sons and daughters” and how many Chinese migrants navigated restrictive immigration classifications during the exclusion era, less is known about those who entered through the “international student regime” on contingent and conditional immigration visas to the U.S. Many Korean migrants entered the country as “international students” having declared to enroll and study in institutions of higher education. While many students returned home after completing their studies, others ended up taking unexpected turns, becoming “undocumented workers” and disappearing from, and later reappearing in, the gaze of the state. We follow the life trajectories of early Korean migrants to the United States who utilized international student visas to navigate residence, labor markets, and/or later settlement. As stateless, racialized migrants, early Korean immigrants offer a window into how migrants straddled the boundary between legal and illegal immigration in U.S. immigration authorities’ early efforts to establish an infrastructure for what is now known as the “deportation regime.” In doing so, we draw these life stories from a unique, under-explored historical source: the immigration case files of Korean immigrants, derived from the National Archives Records Administration (NARA), San Francisco Office. We highlight the creative and agential ways migrants historically “transgress” and “traverse” migration categories through a combination of “performing student identities” at entry as well as out-performing (and outsmarting) surveillance from interior border enforcement and patrol. By doing so, we offer a new insight on how the state connected “racialized Asian bodies” to the “model student” trope, the weight of which is still felt today in the twenty-first century.

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 Presented in Session 2. Asian Americans