A Case for Irvine (January)

In January, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss an issue in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion, if desired) – is any relevant legislation being debated? How are different branches of US government engaged with your topic? Consider particularly the 2020 presidential race.

When a Szechuan restaurant replaces a Marie Callenders
-Justin Koga


Over winter break, I travelled back home to news surrounding a topic that has quickly become a point of contention for many local Irvine, CA residents. The Orange County Register reported that a Chinese woman, Dongyuan Li was released on December 16th after having served a 10-month prison term for operating a birth tourism agency and committing immigration and visa fraud just a 15-minute drive away from my home. Li was the “first birth tourism operator to face prison time for crimes related to the controversial industry.” These developments have led to a very interesting discussion about the nature of Irvine’s demographics amongst local residents.

A shot overlooking Irvine
Overlooking Irvine, CA

In a county known for its diverse mix of cultures and ethnicities, Irvine is very unique. It is “more Asian than white, affluent and booming – its population now surpassing 250,000 as it continues to be an economic powerhouse of Orange County.” My home has become synonymous with a very particular type of lifestyle; a magnet for high-achieving families looking for the best public schools for their children and safe, master-planned neighborhoods nestled within real estate developer Irvine Company’s “villages” for themselves. Just within the past 40 years, Irvine’s demographics have shifted dramatically. The city is rapidly transforming into an ethnoburb; a multiethnic community, “in which one ethnic minority group has a significant concentration, but not necessarily a majority.” In 1980, Irvine was 85% White and just 8% Asian. Today, this ethnographic breakdown has greatly changed. Irvine is now home to over 45% Asian and 40% White families. Szechuan Chinese restaurants have replaced Marie Callenders and entire restaurant/shopping plazas have turned into culinary portals to East Asia. In forthcoming years, it’s not out of the question to predict that Irvine may consist of ethnically homogenous Asian neighborhoods and thus develop into an ethnic enclave

New money and resources due to an influx of wealthy immigrants from overseas has provided a degree of economic stability for the city. Immigration has quite literally disrupted the status quo in Irvine by increasing the value of residences, providing thousands of additional jobs, and even improving the Irvine Unified School District to one of the nation’s leading public-school systems. In the context of the study of ethnic enclaves, the city has provided safety and insulation for the members of its community. Ethnoburbs (which could develop into ethnic enclaves) are generally seen as ways that new immigrant populations or historically marginalized ones can seek protection from the rest of society; a place where immigrants can safely assimilate into society. Historically, Asian Americans with a strong ethnic presence in a city have created safe spaces for themselves with measures such as building electoral coalitions to win local political office. Irvine for a stretch of 8 years and two election cycles from 2008-2016 elected Korean Mayors Sukhee Kang and Steven Choi who in turn protected the fiscal and social interests of the Asian community.

Even with the benefits of a strong ethnic presence, ethnoburbs like Irvine aren’t totally insulating and can sometimes fall victim to negative public opinion created by racial majority groups. This new wave of Asian immigrants has created tensions between the new population and the people who have lived in Irvine long enough to see the racial construction of their communities change over the last 40 years. Vitriol towards the Asian community from its non-Asian counterparts is evident through micro aggressions, online community forums, and even Parent Teacher Associations. For example, Nextdoor, an online community forum, has become a breeding ground for implicit racism between neighborhood families. This medium gives people a platform to argue about anything from high school classes being “too Asian” to something as petty as complaining about a person not fully parking in their driveway.

Aerial shot of Quail Hail in Irvine
One of Irvine’s model communities, Quail Hill

The negative sentiments towards the Asian community in Irvine are a microcosm of the bigger national picture towards immigration. Immigration is simply not seen as a net-positive outcome despite the proven economic benefits that it brings. Rather, at the highest levels of government, immigration is painted as something that not only disrupts the status quo but also creates perceived social obstacles for American citizens. Where the Trump Administration’s stance towards immigration has been the most evident, is surprisingly not by the numbers, but with the perpetuation of a xenophobic response to all immigration. The federal government has explicitly controlled the rates of people who come to the United States by limiting those are accepted to traditional visa pathways. As a result, this has contributed to creating a national nativist-driven dialogue. For example, since President Trump assumed office, the number of H-1B Employment Based visas issued to immigrants has steadily declined as part of the President’s “Buy American, Hire American” initiative. It’s harder to work in the United States because the current administration favors those who’ve been here versus those who come here.

Preparing for the 2020 election, Democratic candidates have specifically discussed policies that are aimed at ameliorating the legislative immigration havoc of the Trump Administration. What hasn’t been covered is the bigger question of how the country can reform its current immigration ethos that was determined by this most recent administration. Anti-immigration sentiments are structural and rooted deeply in American culture. The question is: how can we break down these barriers and evoke change on a structural level?

Back home in Irvine, a recent report confirmed a person being infected with the new and highly contagious virus, Coronavirus. This deadly virus is rapidly spreading throughout China and is a major point of concern for all travelers. Unfortunately, from a U.S. perspective, this virus is already associated with a profile; a Chinese person who is visiting the States from abroad. Although the Asian community may experience the prying eyes of public scrutiny because of this new development, equitable legislation and clear communication within the city is crucial to protecting peoples’ wellbeing and basic rights. While fear of the Coronavirus may exacerbate the nation’s anti-immigration rhetoric, it’s important to look forward to creating an environment that breaks down the very roots of this issue.