“Welcome home,” the judge declared at the end of my family’s Canadian naturalization ceremony—after renouncing our citizenship in the Philippines—in the early 2000s. “Welcome home,” the Canadian border security agents tell me warmly whenever I cross the border to visit my family in Toronto. “Come home,” well-meaning friends wrote to me from Toronto as the government of Canada prepared to close its borders. It was March 2020, and a deadly virus had begun to rage around the world.
Previously, the world’s longest continuous land border—between Canada and the US—was distinguished by just how porous it was; now even that had changed. I was terrified by the images of packed borders and the idea of infected aerosols in planes, trains, and cars. However, I did have enormous incentives to return to Toronto: most of my immediate family was immunocompromised, and my aging father (like many Filipinos) worked in the front lines of the Canadian health-care system.1 For Asian migrants under attack during the COVID-19 pandemic, home-making within the rubrics of the nation-state does afford comfort, but within a matrix of quotidian xenophobia. Where do we come from? Go back to where you came from. I’m from here. I’m local. I’m American, too. For Asians in North America, these words have rung particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent critical mass of Asian American representation in US cultural productions attests to the power of these defensive narratives.
If we think through anti-Asian racism infrastructurally, including the “homeland” imaginations of white settler nativism and Asian visions of repatriation, we might locate it in the domestic, borderlands, and overseas expansion of securitization since the 19th century. Not only has American imperialism established sovereignty through occupation and border making, but it also differentially facilitates the transits of people and things on the move. American overseas imperialism—as recent works by Jodi Kim, Moon-Ho Jung, and Eleana J. Kim show—functions most powerfully through its infrastructures: debt, education, bureaucracy, mobility, many of which are now filtered through the Department of Homeland Security.
To paraphrase the anthropologist Brian Larkin, what are the politics and poetics of the nation’s security infrastructure?2 Together, these three books—Jodi Kim’s Settler Garrison, Moon-Ho Jung’s Menace to Empire, and Eleana J. Kim’s Making Peace with Nature—move readers beyond an understanding of transpacific imperialism as one of “flows” and “exchanges.” Instead, they reveal an oceanic built environment that controls mobility and in extreme circumstances immobilizes it. These works show that even the “domestic” US possesses a security empire—drawn from colonial power—across the Pacific. Perhaps we can think of the security state, in its manifold techniques of authority and domination, as an infrastructure, one that facilitates the economization and transit of life itself.
In March 2020, as I was wondering whether I should “come home” to Canada, I was a foreign national (or “alien”) in the US. And like so many others, I wondered what going home—even during a pandemic—would mean for my pending immigration case.
Even before, it had been difficult to get into the country. Moreover, with my strange circumstances, I feared that the process would be held up by the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security. When I first got my job in 2019, I was told that I would qualify for the H-1B visa, the fabled golden ticket to the coveted green card. It would be a routine process, my institution reassured me. Armed with a nine-digit endowment, fortified with a regiment of legal experts, the Faculty Staff and Visa Services office expedited my case as best they could. A few weeks later, we received the response: “Additional information required.” As it turned out, the process was not routine at all. “Your case is finicky,” my institution told me. “And we are in unprecedented times.”
A previous encounter with the US immigration system was at the root of my errant file. In 2017, I had gleefully taken up a Fulbright Scholarship to study in another settler colony—Hawai‘i—as an emissary of Canada. In my naiveté, I did not realize that a government-funded J-1 visa was like a poison pill. Every recipient of such a visa would have to complete a two-year “homestay” if they ever wanted to come back to the US to work.
Because of my place of birth, the Philippines—a former US colony, made foreign through the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act—the DHS took hold of my petition. Philippine citizens were not permitted to work in the country until a continuous homestay was satisfied. But because my family abandoned our Philippine passports after receiving Canadian citizenship, it was the settler colony of Canada that, for legal purposes, would be considered my “homeland.” This meant that NAFTA, which had ravaged local economies in the Americas, gave me a workaround: I could enter temporarily on a TN nonimmigrant visa, afforded to NAFTA-approved professions like mine, until such time that the DHS finally approved my H-1B petition. By March 2020 they had done so, but I would not be allowed to convert the visa to a green card until I’d lived for 12 more months in Canada.
The privileged strangeness of my immigration case offers me a particular intimacy with the ways that the Department of Homeland Security economizes lives jettisoned by globalization, from migrant professionals and international students to farmworkers and refugees. I have not finished my required “homestay.” At the time of writing, I have about five months to go, and every return trip drains my meager savings and puts me in more debt—all toward the promise of “paying off” the privilege of receiving a Fulbright Scholarship.
Yet the strangeness doesn’t lie in the convoluted bureaucracy I encounter at every border crossing. Instead, it’s in the debt logic of time spent in Canada, imposed differentially upon me, born in an American neocolony, for the right to teach—among other things—the history of US-Philippine relations. This debt logic reveals the surprising and circuitous ways that the US established power across the Pacific in its ascendancy as a security state.
The “time of repayment”—a repeatedly deferred futurity, imposed by American security infrastructures across the Pacific—is the subject of Jodi Kim’s new book, Settler Garrison: Debt Imperialism, Militarism, and Transpacific Imaginaries (Duke University Press). In a cultural analysis of transpacific political and cultural economy, Kim investigates the “sleight of hand” through which the US, the largest debtor in the world, positions itself as an imperial creditor through its military occupations across the Pacific. By connecting the political and moral economies of debt with continental and overseas occupations, Settler Garrison expands on a wave of recent literature in Asian American studies that reveals continuities between continental settler colonialism and overseas imperialism.
For example, Cold War exchange programs were not only a form of imperial soft power but also, more precisely, what Kim calls metapolitical authority: indirect rule of nominally sovereign nations through the strategies of debt imperialism and military dependency. The Fulbright program itself was funded through the spoils of war, and countries were coerced into binational agreements in order to write off postwar debts.
Likewise, Kim notes, even naturalization is a technology through which the US converts metapolitical power into direct political authority. The companion of geopolitical naturalization is its biopolitical quality. In South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the US maintains its metapolitical authority through a settler garrison of military bases shored up through debt imperialism, wherein security and occupation act as a means of paying back that indebtedness. But these locations comprise significant populations of a transpacific diaspora displaced by empire and capital. Naturalized by settler states, they become citizens, their dispossessions repossessed as human capital, their imperial dispersals lobotomized through settler belonging.
One of the ways that the settler garrison operates is by reproducing colonial logics of (non)citizenship, even in geographical contexts without an encroaching white majority. Without a critique of settler colonialism, (non)citizenship, like racial formation, reifies settler colonial forms of belonging and humanity. This is part of the metapolitical logic of the homeland: defenses against xenophobia and racism fortify the identarian axes of the settler state. Of the millions of people who seek to enter the US for long-term employment or asylum, I am part of an immensely rarefied class: an 8-billion-dollar corporation is sponsoring my visa application for a category of professionals whom the state has deemed high-value enough to share in its ill-gotten riches. As the agency deems me worthy of an American salary, it denies many others (Black and Indigenous refugees, political dissidents) the right to asylum. And as I reap the benefits of employment and housing assistance, unhoused millions are denied a safe home, and Indigenous peoples are plundered of their sovereignty by the settler state.
And yet, the Fulbright program, my initial pathway into the US, was originally designed as a form of transwar imperialism at a transitional point of global (formal) decolonization. Before it was inaugurated to train anticommunist collaborators in the arts of American development, it was envisioned as a means through which the US could capitalize on the coming wave of international debt and postwar reconstruction. In 1946, using the profits made from offloading war surplus, Congress created the program, and in 1961, with the introduction of the J-1 visa, expanded it into the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. This expansion accompanied the heightened tensions against the Soviet Union, and to secure pro-American alliances among nonaligned nations, the Fulbright was a critical piece of the ideological garrison of US empire. The price, however, was that these emissaries needed to fulfill a two-year “homestay” so that they could impart the lessons of the American metropole to their countries of origin.
Therefore, it would seem that the securitization of American life necessitates the establishment of a “home” to demarcate its territories from “abroad.” But considering the metapolitical maneuvers at the heart of US empire, the dualism of home/abroad is a muddled continuum.
As early as 1899, Supreme Court rulings now known as the Insular Cases fabricated a set of legal fictions that muddied the home/abroad dichotomy. Thereafter, American colonial occupations in the Caribbean and the Pacific would be called “foreign in a domestic sense” and named unincorporated territories, subject to exceptional (and direct) forms of sovereign violence. These “homelands” were simultaneously “domestic” US spaces, and their subjects were called “US Nationals,” not citizens. And this, in turn, facilitated a free flow of labor migration in the continental metropole.
The logic of debt in the J-1 “homestay” reveals how the settler garrison works through placemaking. My own requirements can be fulfilled in any area to which the State of Canada lays claim, from Newfoundland and Labrador to the Arctic Circle and Haida Gwaii, even if I have no genealogical relationship with those places. And because my family surrendered our Philippine citizenship in the early 2000s, I cannot repay this debt-by-territorial presence in Manila Bay and Northern Luzon, the regions to which I actually have familial and native ties.
Non-Canadian (and non-NATO) J-1 recipients who need to fulfill their homestay requirements in countries like the Philippines can likewise do so in other regions and islands to which they have no claim. Thus, the form of return is not native geography but the nation-state.
Without a critique of settler colonialism, (non)citizenship, like racial formation, reifies settler colonial forms of belonging and humanity.
In the 2020s, anti-Asian racism manifested conjunctively through the imposed immobility of Chinese travel across the Pacific and the endangering of Chinese (and other Asian) American travel in everyday domestic life. As far back as the early 20th century, according to historian Moon-Ho Jung, policing insurgent Asian bodies and ideas was central to the rise of American securitization.
In Menace to Empire: Anticolonial Solidarities and the Transpacific Origins of the US Security State (University of California Press), Jung follows an intellectual history of Asians and Asian Americans and the counterinsurgent responses to decolonial thought across the Pacific. Jung makes a powerful intervention into the historiography of anti-Asian racism, which is often located within stories of white nativist anger and Asian victimhood of legal and extralegal violence.
Menace to Empire provides a longer history of transpacific migration that focuses on not Asian inclusion but Asian rage: the constellation of anticolonial thought and activism that coalesced after the turn of the 20th century, as American colonialism extended its tendrils toward the shores of East and Southeast Asia. Through case studies such as the Pakistani civil servant Dada Amir Haider Khan and the Japanese journalist Sen Katayama, Jung charts a veritable radical tradition closely watched by American offices such as the FBI, who compiled meticulous profiles and surveillance strategies around writers whom they identified as anathema to the pacification of the nation’s western oceanic frontiers.
Thus, Jung tells a story of transpacific imperialism that draws the relationship between radical activism and counterinsurgent infrastructure. This century-long contestation gave rise to a security state built on the anxieties of maintaining American sovereignty.
The centrality of Asian rage reminds me of imperial histories of carcerality, such as the policing of coraje in Puerto Rico and the systematization of counterinsurgency in the Philippine civil government.3 Yet I cannot help but ask: What do we make of the nonradical modes of everyday Asian survival under empire?
Among Jung’s subjects of study, radicalism quickly gave way to different declensions. For instance, although the Ilocano writer Isabelo de los Reyes burst into the Philippine intelligentsia with radical creativity—and was imprisoned in Spain for his work—he was a swift collaborator with the US. Across the Pacific, the writer Carlos Bulosan might have been an avid socialist and activist, but in the private sphere he was a known womanizer. The anticolonial visions of these thinkers wedge open other futures beyond those ascribed by colonial occupation and imperial forms of national independence. For Jung, the US can be framed potently as an empire in reaction, on the defensive, and anxious about its own sovereignty. At the heart of these anxieties are the revolutionary visions of freedom and decolonization, a liberation of colonized people’s own making.
For me, what tempers these radical histories of anticolonial thought is the simple fact that the US did cultivate an Asian diasporic subject—not to mention an Asian geopolitical relation—that finds comfort in myriad forms of inclusion into an American security state. After World War II, both Japan (under American occupation) and formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans became the centerpieces of US postwar racial liberalism, built on the forgetting of imperial violence and incarceration.4 In another mid-century moment, Filipino and Indian political actors launched a “movement without marches” to repeal Asian exclusion, resulting in an immigration system that prioritizes potential “value” to the state.5
Thus, securitization manifests ideologically through forms of inclusion. Under this logic, migrants who “came to America the right way” pass through a counterinsurgent form of subject formation, through which that subject is deemed valuable enough to feel secure within the borders of a nation-state.
As the COVID-19 lockdown has shown us, borders—including the oceanic and terrestrial ones that dictate my own mobilities—are not merely abstract demarcations on a map; they are embodied and ecological at their core, even as the narratives around their management dictate otherwise. In Making Peace with Nature: Ecological Encounters along the Korean DMZ (Duke University Press), the anthropologist Eleana J. Kim offers a novel way to think about the surprising ramifications of the US transpacific security regime. Through a multispecies ethnography of the Demilitarized Zone and the precarious communities that huddle along the 38th parallel, she disentangles the relationship between militarized “peace” and the biodiversity of a borderland.
During the interstitial periods before and shortly after the initial vaccination rates rose, I waited for borders to open. In the meantime, I attended to the protective measures against an unknown and invisible virus. And as I watched a globalization interrupted, stories abounded with images of a healing Earth: air quality in China and Southern California improved vastly, wild animals roamed freely in cities, and tourist-free shorelines glistened a brilliant blue. As the activities of capitalism ground to a halt, it seemed that, in common parlance, “nature was healing.” In those months, I realized that the nonhuman relations at stake with the fortification of security states were not only those visible solely under an electron microscope.
Eleana J. Kim offers an opportunity to think of the ecological ramifications of the closed borders of the last few years. One particularly powerful chapter is her study of undetonated mines along the DMZ from the Korean War. These she calls rogue infrastructure: the violent infrastructure left behind by colonial warfare, through which human-nonhuman interactions might give rise to unexpected forms of life making. The everyday lives and political imaginations of DMZ-area communities come into focus as they make sense of their relationships with the volatile landscape.
In an interview with a former mayor of the Cheong Jeon-ri settlement, Kim disentangles a strategy implemented by South Korean president Park Chung-hee—the Israeli-style kibbutz—and the state’s failure to create self-sustaining economies in border settlements. The local trade that took precedence was the harvesting and selling of sinjju, or steel artillery shell scraps, in defiance of the South Korean government’s agricultural visions for the region. In the face of state abandonment, human-mine relationalities became the face of national development, and for Kim, a key way to imagine a postwar peace beyond the discourses of imperial humanitarianism.
In the way that Eleana J. Kim thinks about a decolonial peace, I wonder what a decolonial return migration might look like. Return, like peace (and incidentally, like reunification), espouses a two-pronged temporality. They reach into a primordial past, imagining a time and space untainted by the vicissitudes of imperial violence. Simultaneously, return and peace are visions of an economic future, a veritable frontier of development yet to come. But among Kim’s interlocutors, economic peace might also bring ecological devastation.
Like peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula, a post-COVID return to “normal” is a capitalist future that might very well be at odds with the “healing” of a nature that could breathe better without the fossil fuel-laden by-products of human activity.
But settler science cannot fix the ravages of settler colonial violence. Recent Indigenous-led projects are a testament to the power and efficacy of Indigenous science in ecological restoration. In Australia, Indigenous burning has been fundamental in controlling recent wildfires. And in Northern California, the member tribes of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council have begun conservation efforts.
On the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Homeland Security, three years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps a critique of homeland security must be about land. The economization of migrant lives by the security state—from the selective abandonment of refugees to the debt logics of the J-1 visa—is also an ecological crisis of settler colonialism.
Therefore, challenging the xenophobias of security infrastructures must go beyond the lines of citizenship and belonging. These challenges must commit to returning land to the rightful stewards—in the Americas, Oceania, and Asia—who have long called these places home.
- “If you’re abroad,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared on the eve of the global lockdown, “it’s time for you to come home.” This speech was broadcast out of an iPad in the condominium where my childhood friend and I spent the early days of the pandemic. She had been visiting me from New York, and when we flew back to Toronto, we spent our days in a glass-contained space of 500 square feet. On top of family obligations, our choice to return home was motivated by our access to socialized medicine in the Province of Ontario—nominally available to everybody, but in practice only accessible in monied municipalities. ↩
- Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 42, (2013), pp. 327–43. ↩
- Marisol Lebrón, “Policing Coraje in the Colony: Toward a Decolonial Feminist Politics of Rage in Puerto Rico,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 46, no. 4, (2021), pp. 801–6; Alfred McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). ↩
- T. Fujitani, Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (University of California Press, 2011). ↩
- Jane Hong, Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). ↩