Hawaii : Shining example for power of immigration | Daily News

Hawaii : Shining example for power of immigration

Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii

Kamehameha is a name that you are unlikely to have heard, but in his day he was a powerful warrior king. The history of one Polynesian island is forever intertwined with his legendary name and a statue built in his honour still stands proudly right in the heart of its capital.

I had not read or heard much about Kamehameha until our bus stopped near this magnificent statue and our “guide” for the day Derek Farrar stepped out. He shepherded our group of 13 US and Asian journalists to the base of the statue. “Aloha ! Welcome to Hawaii” said Farrar, News and Information Specialist of the East West Center of Hawaii, his voice resonating in the mid-day heat.

It was somewhat surreal to hear that a US State (Hawaii became one on August 21, 1959) once had a King, whose palace still stands in Honolulu just a few steps away from the statue. Indeed, Hawaii would not be what it is today without the unifying efforts of King Kamehameha. After a series of battles, all inhabited islands came under a single ruler, who became known as King Kamehameha the Great. He established the House of Kamehameha, a dynasty that ruled the kingdom until 1872.

The US did have several independent countries before it became the USA proper – Vermont Republic, Republic of California, Republic of Texas, Republic of West Florida and the Republic of Hawaii. But only Hawaii had royalty – and to this date, the only royal palace anywhere in the USA. The Hawaiian Kingdom was however overthrown in January 1893 – Queen Lili’uokalani was the last monarch of Hawaii before it was annexed to the United States in the same month.

Volcanic islands

Hawaii, a string of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, is unique in so many other ways – it is the only US State that is not located in North America, the only one with an Asian majority and the only one where coffee can be grown. It shares with Alaska the distinction of not bordering any other US State.

And while there is a mad scramble these days to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world is actually in Hawaii. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, rises 13,796 feet above sea level, but if you measure it from ocean floor to its summit, its total height is nearly 33,500 feet, which easily beats Everest’s 29,035 feet.

Before reaching into the history of Hawaii, a little bit of geography: Hawaii is a chain a Pacific islands of volcanic origin though now it has lush forests and waterfalls. There are eight main inhabited islands, though one of them is private with limited access. Oahu, nicknamed “The Gathering Place” is the most populous island, which also houses the State capital Honolulu. It is roughly twice as big as Singapore. The Big Island or Hawaii (from which the island chain gets its native name) is the biggest island at more than 10,000 Sq Km, though its population is less than 200,000. Among the other islands are Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai and Nihau. If not for the wonders of air travel, Hawaii would still be one of the most isolated and remote spots on the planet.

But this leads us to the question of how Hawaii was peopled in the first place. It is generally believed that Hawaii was first settled around 300 CE by people from other Polynesian islands (there are around 1,000 but the main ones are New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Easter Island, Fiji, Cook Islands, Tahiti and Tuvalu). Another wave of migration probably occurred around 1000 AD. Hawaii gradually developed a tribal chiefdom based society. The Hawaiian language, which survives to this day against great odds (this is a separate story in itself), has its roots in other Polynesian languages.

When Western explorer James Cook dropped by in 1778, Hawaii is estimated to have had a population of around 150,000. But his second visit proved to be rather unfortunate for him. After a quarrel with locals who took one of his boats, Cook abducted the King of Hawaii Kalanioppu and held him for ransom in return for the boat. But the King’s supporters attacked Cook and killed him. But his legacy lives on – the Hawaii flag still has the Union Jack in the upper left corner.

Cook’s exploits spread far and wide and before long, a steady stream of visitors arrived in Hawaii. “The peopling of Hawaii is a fascinating story. Immigration is the very foundation of Hawaii,” says John P Rosa, Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Hawaii.

Some Chinese settlers arrived with Cook himself, but more arrived later with the Europeans who began plantations on the islands. They imported labourers from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines, Korea and Okinawa to supplement the natives who worked on the farms. Between 1885 and 1924, more than 200,000 Japanese migrated to Hawaii. From Portugal, more than 16,000 arrived between 1878 and 1911. Koreans first arrived in 1903 and the first Filipinos, in 1906.

Today, racially unmixed native Hawaiians (called Kanaka Maoli) number around 156,000 and nearly 370,000 identify themselves as native in combination with one of the other ethnicities in the island. Hawaii has the highest percentage of Asian Americans and multiracial Americans and the lowest percentage of White Americans of any state. It is the only state where Asian Americans are identified as the largest ethnic group. Hawaii's Asian population consists mainly of 198,000 (14.6%) Filipino Americans, 185,000 (13.6%) Japanese Americans, roughly 55,000 (4.0%) Chinese Americans, and 24,000 (1.8%) Korean Americans. One in five Hawaiians has immigrant roots.

The total number of Hawaiians or Kama’aina exceeds 1.4 million, including US military personnel. As of 2018, Hawaii had an estimated population of 1,420,491; a decrease of 7,047 from the previous year and an increase of 60,190 (4.42%) since 2010. This includes a natural increase of 48,111 (96,028 births minus 47,917 deaths) and an increase due to net migration of 16,956 people into the State. Immigration from outside the United States resulted in a net increase of 30,068; migration within the country produced a net loss of 13,112 people.

Immigrant roots

In fact, like all islands, Hawaii’s is a story of immigration. During my stay in Hawaii, I witnessed a US Citizenship Ceremony in Honolulu where around 40 people received the coveted US Citizenship certificate. It was a moment of pride for these new citizens coming from all over the world (there were no Sri Lankans at this particular ceremony), but it was an even more significantly moment for Hawaii, which is clearly not full and needs more people. “The US can absorb a large number of immigrants despite claims to the contrary. This is a nation built on the basis of immigration,” says John Reece, Professor of Geography at the University of Hawaii.

However, now there are fears that new proposals to decrease family-based immigration and a crackdown on people who overstay their visas could have a big impact on Hawaii. The latest proposal to revamp the immigration system would give immigrants points based on skills and education and mandate immigrants learn English and be financially self-sufficient.

Any attempt to limit family-based immigration could have a major impact on Hawaii’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities, which still supply most new immigrants to Hawaii. “Unlike most other States, Hawaii’s percentages of family-based immigration are significantly more dramatic,” says John Egan, a law professor at the University of Hawaii.

A potential crackdown on visa overstays could also have an effect on undocumented immigrants. While Hawaii is not a “Sanctuary” City or State that does not cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vis-a-vis undocumented migrants, Hawaii is home to an estimated 45,000 undocumented immigrants (2016 figures), according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Most of them are from the Asia-Pacific region and just six percent are from Mexico and South America compared with 51 percent nationally.

There is another difference – almost all visitors to Hawaii, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, arrive by air (with the exception of cruise ship passengers), which means that practically all the undocumented migrants have initially arrived legally with valid US visas. Many also fear that the new proposals could effectively block existing avenues for overstayers to legalise their stay in the US.

Family migration to Hawaii and elsewhere suffers from another malady – the delay in addressing the huge backlog of cases. According to the US Department of State, they will process family migration applications of U.S. citizens in the Philippines that were approved 22 years ago in 1997. Applications for Chinese siblings of U.S. citizens are backlogged 13 years. There are fears that the backlogs could be caught up in plans to limit family migration.

Hawaiian future

This kind of insecurity has led some Hawaiians to contemplate what Hawaii could have been if it remained as an independent country, says Farrar. There are those who still advocate Hawaiian independence, but it is unlikely to happen given its complete integration with, and statehood within, the US.

But it is now recognized that the overthrow of the Hawaiian regime was illegal. In 1993, the US Congress passed a joint Apology Resolution regarding the overthrow; it was signed by President Bill Clinton. The resolution apologized and said that the overthrow was illegal in the following phrase: “The Congress — on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893, acknowledges the historical significance of this event which resulted in the suppression of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people.”

The Apology Resolution also acknowledged that “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum”.

As its chquered history shows, Hawaii is a fractured land in more ways than one. Geographically, culturally and demographically it is unlike any other place in the United States. In my conversations with the natives I learned that being a Kamai’anna gives oneself a unique feeling that is hard to translate into words. Hawaii is unique and so are the Hawaiians. Proud of their past and optimistic about their future, they are keen to welcome more people to experience life in their island paradise.

(The writer visited Hawaii as part of the Jefferson Journalism Fellowship of the East West Center, Hawaii) 

James Cook explored Hawaii

An early picture of Hawaii diversity

King Kamehameha statue, Honolulu


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