Asian Americans consist of immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. Small numbers of Asians first arrived in the Americas in the mid-16th century, but the main influx began just in the mid-19th century.
Chinese peasants and laborers made up the first major group of Asians to immigrate to the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. They left China as a result of the rice shortage and the Taiping Rebellion. Chinese immigrants provided American employers with a source of cheap labor and they were found jobs building railroads and serving as domestic maids. Land grants were used to encourage Chinese immigration, and by 1882, approximately 300,000 Chinese people had come to the West Coast. Chinese immigration came to a halt after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed that same year.
Japanese immigration followed a different path, as Japan and United States had treaties in place that allowed a certain number of people to immigrate to each country. Japan only allowed 335 of its citizens to emigrate during the years 1860 and 1880. The number of Japanese immigrants increased after the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, and in 1884, the Japanese allowed more of its citizens to immigrate to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations there. The main wave of immigrants from Japan did not begin until around 1890.
Koreans only began to immigrate to the United States between 1902 and 1905, when around 8,000 of them went to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Indians also immigrated in small numbers during the twentieth century. The thousands that came ended up settling primarily in California and working in the agricultural field.
Immigration from the Philippines began at the turn of the twentieth century when the United States government decided that they should take in Filipino citizens since they could not govern themselves. They were made nationals of the United States but were not citizens and were not subject to immigration laws. By 1910, less than 3,000 Filipinos had immigrated and it was not until after World War I that more of them immigrated.
The early years of Asian immigration were plagued with racial tensions and Asian immigrants from all of the countries were at some point excluded or otherwise criticized. It was not until World War II that racial tensions and exclusions began to ease up. In 1965, President Kennedy helped to enact legislative amendments that would eliminate the quota system and allow immigration from countries throughout the world instead of favoring immigration from Western European countries. The new law allowed for 20,000 immigrants from each country, excluding immediate relatives of those who had already been granted United States citizenship. The 1965 amendments resulted in an increase of the Asian American population from around 1 million before 1965 to over 7 million in 1990.
From 1965 until 1990, the number of Chinese Americans increased from 360,000 to over 1.5 million. Although these immigrants settled throughout the United States, the largest Chinese-American communities are found in California, followed by New York. The Filipino-American population also increased significantly after the 1965 reforms, and by 1990 their numbers had grown from 200,000 to 1.4 million. Most of the early immigrants were professionals such as nurses, doctors and accountants, whose families joined them once they were established. Filipino Americans have also settled across the country, with the largest concentrations found in California and in Hawaii.
The Indian population in the United States increased from around 50,000 before 1965 to about 800,000 in 1990. They have settled primarily in the Northeast and in New York as opposed to other groups, which tended to stay in the western states.
The Korean-American population increased from around 45,000 before 1965 to 800,000 in 1990. The first immigrants after 1965 were primarily laborers, and later their families joined them. Before 1965, they primarily immigrated to Hawaii but after 1965, they settled all over the United States.
The group that was the least affected by the reforms of 1965 was the Japanese. Their population only increased from around 500,000 before 1965 to just over 800,000 in 1990. This is likely due to the economic success that Japan experienced around this time, keeping most Japanese at home. Japanese immigrants settled primarily in California and Hawaii.