From "War on Terror" to the “China Initiative:” The Chilling Parallels of Racial Profiling Between Chinese American and AMEMSA Communities

May 23, 2022 Perspective

A large group of protestors holding up a yellow and red sign that reads "No Muslim Ban Ever."

Community members gather to rally for an end to the Muslim and African Bans. (No Muslim Ban Ever 2018)

In 2015, FBI agents barged into Temple University Professor Xiaoxing Xi’s home with a battering ram, pointed guns at him, his wife and two daughters, and arrested him in front of his family. They accused him of sharing sensitive technology for a pocket heater with scientific colleagues in China. It would soon become clear that this accusation was false and based largely on Professor Xi’s ethnicity rather than any evidence of wrongdoing or national security threat. Seven years after the FBI threatened him with 80 years in prison and $1 million in fines promptly dismissed by the Justice Department, Professor Xi and his family are still facing the ramifications of the U.S. government’s racial profiling.

Professor Xi stands with his wife and two young daughters in front of their home.

The lives of Professor Xi, his wife, and two daughters were forever changed by the U.S. government's false accusations and racial profiling. (ACLU)

Professor Xi’s unjust arrest and the baseless charges against him are part of the U.S. government’s long legacy of discrimination and state-based discriminatory policies targeting communities on the basis of little more than their race, ethnicity, national origin or religious background. Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities as well as Black and other Asian communities have all long experienced the chilling parallels of mass surveillance, unwarranted investigations, and unjust prosecutions by the federal government. On February 23, the Justice Department announced an end to the controversial “China Initiative,” and a series of changes to their national security approach to address concerns of profiling of Asians, Asian Americans, and immigrants. While this is a step in the right direction, the Biden administration must continue on this path, through both an honest reckoning of the government’s xenophobic and discriminatory actions and a full-scale change that ends profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion.

Insidious stereotypes portraying our communities as purportedly disloyal and inherently suspect have justified policies from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated over 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. In the past 20 years, we have continued to witness resurgent waves of xenophobia and scapegoating, from the profiling and surveillance of AMEMSA communities under counterterrorism programs after 9/11, to the racial targeting of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists like Professor Xi, which intensified under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.” Under the pretext of national security, Asian American, Black, and AMEMSA communities are being unjustly surveilled, investigated, and even criminally charged.

Despite being part of the fabric of American society for centuries, Asian and AMEMSA communities continue to be perceived by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies as “perpetual foreigners.”

Four members of the Japanese American stand in support with the Muslim community at a rally to end the Bans, holding signs that say "Never Again"

Members of the Japanese American community show solidarity with the Muslim community after the Muslim and African Bans went into effect. (Les Talusan 2018)

The myth of the “perpetual foreigner” is a common thread that weaves through the shared experience of vulnerable and marginalized communities. Cast as permanently foreign and, thus, seen as forever suspect and disloyal, Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, among others, have been targeted throughout this country’s history by government agencies and certain politicians for surveillance, prosecution, and increased law enforcement and national security scrutiny. Just as Chinese American families like Professor Xi’s have been approached by FBI agents at their home, AMEMSA communities, too, have met hostile and intimidating government agents at their front doors. The maze of questions and repeated searches at airports are common occurrences for AMEMSA and Asian American communities alike. The government is using discriminatory and baseless theories such as “radicalization” or “non-traditional collectors” to claim certain people are more prone to actions that threaten national security. Through these actions, government agencies are using race, ethnicity, national origin, and religious beliefs as a basis to question our loyalty and undermine our freedoms and safety, instilling anxiety and fear in our communities.

The trauma is more acute for impacted people and their families, whose lives and careers have been shattered while they continue to fight against this injustice. Professor Xi is one of them. Even though he has wrestled back his freedom, Professor Xi and his family are now holding the government responsible for its actions for all communities who live their lives under the shadow of unjust surveillance and suspicion.

Asian American communities, civil rights advocates, and academic groups are calling for change with support and solidarity from allied communities of color. As evidenced by the Justice Department's recent announcement, community advocacy is making a difference. Today, the fight continues on. We continue to challenge systemic racism, xenophobia, and anti-Asian hate through legal action and advocacy so that this never happens again and we can all live without fear.

Gisela Perez Kusakawa is the Assistant Director, Anti-Racial Profiling Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC. Hammad Alam is a Staff Attorney and Program Manager in the National Security and Civil Rights program at Asian Law Caucus.