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Celia Martinez

The Desired Laborer but Undesired Migrant

Published on

Over fifteen years, Nodie Dora Sohn, a Korean immigrant, submitted multiple applications for re-entry into the United States. Nodie’s forty-six files, which consist of the permits, applications, and other supplemental documents, allow one to see her immigration journey as she entered and re-entered the United States.

Although many of the documents in her A-File contain similar information, there are some inconsistencies with her listed occupations. From 1953 to 1968, Nodie lists drastically different occupations in various applications, such as being a factory worker at Kahala TH, a housewife, a professor at Seoul National University, a director of the Office of Procurement of the Republic of Korea, and then eventually lists herself as retired. Not only is Nodie required to list her occupation, but she must also provide supplemental documentation that proves her occupation. In her file, a letter from Nodie’s employer to the District Director of Immigration and Naturalizations Services explains that Nodie has accepted a position as the Director of the Office of Korea’s Procurement and confirms her employment. The required supplemental documents are an example of extra requirements that migrants, like Nodie, were forced to provide in order to cross the boundaries of U.S. territory.

As the years pass, immigration agencies require more information and documentation for migrants to be clear to enter the United States, including proof of new employment or previous work experience. Often these requirements reveal what type of migrant is wanted, someone who can give more to the United States rather than “take.” As a result, basic information listed on immigration documents such as gender, race, and ethnicity can play a significant role in how a migrant’s immigration process plays out. The United States Immigration Services did not begin tracking gender until the mid-1800s. Then, the process of entering the United States became based on one’s documented gender. The exhibition does not seek to perpetuate the gender binary any further. Gender, although a cultural construct, has often shaped immigration policies, and one sees different patterns in the system correlate with gender. Similar to the difference in the immigration process between men and women, different groups of women face harsher forms of discrimination in the immigration system. The experiences of all women are not synonymous due to other factors such as race and ethnicity. In the United States, race and ethnicity in immigration have long been used to demonize those who do not fit the “ideal migrant” notion. These attitudes towards race and ethnicity can be seen reflected in the immigration process. The immigration process mirrors the United States’ notions of gender, race, and ethnicity.

In the United States, gender became a determining factor in the mid-1800s peak of migration. Although migration is not synonymous with all migrants, many migrants came to the United States due to issues concerning economic sustainability in their home countries. The United States was seen as the “land of opportunity” because of the opportunity the emerging industrial market had presented. With this concept, migrants held the idea that if they continued to work hard and consistently, they would eventually achieve the “American dream” of having everything they ever wanted. Industrialization shifted how foreigners saw the United States, but the shift changed womens’ role in the labor market. Industrialization opened new labor opportunities for women, especially those in the lower class. While women overall were still associated with domestic life, having the chance to work allowed women to support themselves and their families. They were no longer solely associated with domestic life and work but now desired laborers in the emerging industrial market.

The labor market plays a role in how gender impacts the immigration process. In 1889, geographer Ernest Georg Ravenstein wrote The Laws of Migration, a case study in the United Kingdom in which he expands on how men and women experience migration differently. Ravenstein explains that although society associates women with domestic life, women often leave their home country searching for better employment opportunities1. The relationship between gender and the labor market is seen in different ways. For example, different labor industries appeal more to women than men. Female labor is often more sought after than male labor because Women are paid less, thus help the industries raise productivity at a lower cost. With industrialization, women became more sought out in the market in the search to maximize profits. Ravenstien concludes that one of the universal laws is that “females are more migratory than males”2 due to these patterns2. If women are considered the ideal laborers, why were they not the ideal migrants?

The immigration system has made it more difficult for women to go through the process of entering the United States. In the immigration process, women are tied to their families; therefore, they will go through a family-based process. Until the 1920s, whenever women would enter the United States, they would have to disclose information about their parents or husbands. Unmarried women, or those without ties to a family, were seen as a threat and unwanted migrants. From the beginning of the immigration process, marking one’s gender adds another reason why one could not be let into the United States. Women were subject to different requirements that often complicated and elongated their entry. One of the first changes against the gender discriminatory policies in immigration was the Cable Act of 1922, also known as the Married Women’s Act. The act allowed women to enter the immigration process without their husbands. Although the act refers explicitly to obtaining citizenship, it gives insight into how gender discriminatory immigration laws were enacted against women.

For Asian women, the process continues to compound. Although women were often the desired laborers with the emerging industrial market, not all women were desired migrants. Instead, certain groups of women posed a threat to the labor market, thus threatening the immigration system. On top of the existing gender discriminatory laws women face, Asian women were bound to racially discriminatory policies in the immigration system. Moreover, multiple anti-immigration policies, such as the Page Act, added extra barriers to the immigration process for Asian women.

The Page Act set a precedent for which women were considered desirable migrants and laborers by prohibiting any Asian woman who was a sex worker from entering the United States. Asian women were seen as solely as sex workers rather than the desired industrial worker. Thus, Asian women became the scapegoat in immigration policies. The majority of Asian women did not have ties to sex work, but like many other women, they participated in the market. As a result, Asian women became targets, and the stereotype of being prostitutes was perpetrated. In addition, they were labeled as “promiscuous” and said to be carrying diseases to further the anti-women and anti-Asian immigration agenda. The Page Act imposed a barrier for Asian women who were sex workers, but all Asian women were profiled in the process. Many times extra documentation was required to prove that women were unassociated with sex work. Instead of a simple stamp of approval on immigration documents, often, the process was elongated to prove they were not a threat to the United States.

While women were considered the desired laborers, Asian women were considered a threat to the United States because of racist stereotypes perpetuated by immigration policies. Asian women, like Nodie Dora Sohn, had more steps to complete immigration processes because they not only had to provide information on who they were but prove who they were not. Although the A-files in the project reflect on the immigration system in place a century back, the impact of the gender and racial discriminatory immigration policies legacy continues in the present day.


  1. Ernest Georg Ravenstein, The Laws of Migrations (Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 1885), 198. ↩︎

  2. Ibid, 199. ↩︎