September 30, 2023
January 13, 2016 | KOREAN AMERICAN DAY
Happy Korean American Day!
114 years ago on this day, one hundred and two Korean immigrants landed on the shores of Hawaii, marking the earliest arrival of our community in America.

In 2003 on the 100th anniversary of this event, the President and Congress declared it “Korean American Day.” Since then more and more states and municipalities have officially recognized this day to honor the contributions of Korean Americans to our country.

I have recently been reading about how, since the early 1900’s, our nation has been struggling with the question of what it means to be an “American.” The book Nation of Nations by Tom Gjelten, an NPR journalist, presents the history of US immigration policy through the stories of immigrants from Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live.
I learned that the fierce debate we are having today about immigration and the meaning of “American” is not new. But by understanding the story behind the passage of the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, I gained a new appreciation for how the fate of many so often depends on the decisions of a few.
This is why it is urgent that our community continues to grow our voice and develops new leaders who can be part of these decisions. The opportunity to change history in a way that impacts millions of lives may be nearer than we imagine.
I invite you to read more of my personal reflections below. And no matter who you are, make sure to tell a friend, “Happy Korean American Day!”
Sam Yoon
Executive Director
The Unlikely Story of How We All Got Here
Earlier this week, on January 10, my birthday, I was on the phone with my parents. My parents wanted to wish me a happy birthday, and my mother was reminiscing about the day I was born, in Seoul, 1970. It was a cold day. She had no epidural. I had a big nose.

I remarked how my parents underwent tremendous change that year. Their first child was born in January. By October, they were both on a plane, with me in their arms, bound for America. They were the first in their families to leave their country.

What made this possible was a piece of legislation that had passed five years prior: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, the Immigration Act made a fundamental change in the way America admitted immigrants to the US to become citizens. Instead of having annual quotas by country, applications would be based on the merits of the applicants and their family circumstances — there would be no discrimination based on country of origin.

This did not sound earth-shattering to me until I understood what was so wrong with the quota system. What I didn’t realize was that the national quota system was inherently discriminatory and even racist. In his book Nation of Nations, Tom Gjelten recounts that the original quota levels, which hadn’t changed much since they were passed into law in 1924, were set in a way that sought to preserve the ethnic “balance” of America the way it was in… 1890.

Yes, in 1924 Congress passed a law that looked at the foreign-born population of the US in 1890 and set annual visa limits at 2% of the population for each of the countries they came from. Why 1890?

Because in 1890 America’s foreign-born were mostly from the “respectable” parts of Europe — England, France, Germany — whose racial stock was pure and civilized. Between 1890 and 1924 America had been flooded by millions of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia, and other “unwashed” and “undesirable” European countries. Thanks to the 1924 law, immigration from these countries slowed to a trickle. (BTW Chinese immigration had stopped altogether since the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1880.)

The 1965 Immigration Act changed all that. In 1958 John F. Kennedy, while a senator and presidential hopeful, had written a book, A Nation of Immigrants, with the intention of raising the profile of this issue in his campaign for president. He believed that America’s future was tied to its openness to people from everywhere. It was a bold idea. Kennedy won the White House in 1960. He was assassinated in 1963.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, easily beat Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and was determined to pass immigration reform as part of his civil rights agenda. The result, with the help of key allies in Congress, was the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which said, in Johnson’s own words on the day of its signing:

The bill says simply that… those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country — to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit — will be the first that are admitted to this land.

Little did President Johnson or Congress know that those who would line up to pass that test would become dramatically less and less European. They would come from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America — and by the millions. By 2015 the top five countries of origin for naturalization were: Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. South Korea was ranked 13. Italy and Ireland was ranked 54 and 80.

My father, after graduating from medical school, applied for a visa to the US to continue his residency training in 1970. In 1977, he applied to stay in the US as a citizen, to contribute to the growth, strength, and spirit of America. As a citizen, my mother helped her parents and four siblings apply for admission to the US because of their close relationship to her. They all naturalized and became citizens. The rest, as they say, is my family’s history.

Footnote: Nation of Nations prominently features the family history of Mark Keam, my friend and my state delegate in the Virginia General Assembly. Mark and other Korean American political leaders are here because of laws that were passed fifty years ago. Now they are passing laws that will affect our own children and grandchildren.

CKA is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of successful Korean American leaders. Our mission is to assert a strong, clear voice on issues vital to Korean Americans while helping them engage in American society to achieve meaningful success.
Council of Korean Americans, P.O. Box 66128, Washington, DC 20035
Sent by [email protected] in collaboration with


CAPAC Members Celebrate Korean American Day

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) released the following statements to celebrate Korean American Day, which commemorates the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States:

Congresswoman Judy Chu (CA-27), CAPAC Chair:

“Since the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States over a century ago, the Korean American community has made a profound impact on our nation. From small business owners to religious leaders to military service members, Korean Americans have enriched American life with their significant contributions and accomplishments. As Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, I join Korean Americans across the country to celebrate Korean American Day and to honor the rich cultural heritage of the Korean American community.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (IL):

“In celebrating Korean American Day, we are reminded of all the remarkable contributions of the Korean immigrants who first came to our shores, and of the continued contributions of the Korean American community thereafter. Our nation’s strength lies in the diversity of its people, and today I am honored to celebrate the rich cultural history of Korean Americans all across the United States.”

Senator Mazie K. Hirono (HI):

“Korean Americans make significant contributions to the rich fabric of our nation. In Hawaii and across the country, we celebrate Korean American history and culture.”

Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (GU), CAPAC Vice Chair:

“Korean Americans have made countless contributions to our nation. In Guam and across the country, Korean Americans are integral members of our communities, and they contribute every day to the vibrancy and richness of the American family. As we celebrate Korean American Day, I extend my best wishes to the Korean American community in Guam and nationwide.” 

Congressman Mark Takano (CA-41), CAPAC Whip:

“Today, we celebrate the contributions of the Korean American community since their first arrival onto US soil in 1903. Korean Americans are responsible for countless achievements in science, business, education, the arts, and more. They have served in our military and they have engaged with the social and political fabric of our nation, helping to redefine notions of what it means to be an American. Our country is strengthened our diversity, and I am proud to celebrate the continued strength, vitality, and beauty of the Korean American community.”

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02):

“In the more than 100 years since the first Korean immigrants arrived on Hawaiʻi’s shores, Korean Americans have made invaluable contributions across every sector of our society. In Hawaiʻi, Korean-Americans have been an integral to our history and culture, leading in every sector of our community. Today, we celebrate generations of Korean Americans, past and present, who have helped shape and strengthen our country for the better.”

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (HI-01):

“Today, we celebrate Korean American Day knowing that the lives of all Americans have been enriched by the first Koreans immigrating to the United States over a century ago. The Korean American community in Hawaii stands at over 22,000 strong and the strength of their influence on Hawaii’s unique Asian American Pacific Islander community and Hawaii’s Aloha spirit cannot be exaggerated. Let us all celebrate Korean American day by acknowledging and expressing gratitude for the Korean people, their culture, and their community.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13):

“On Korean-American Day, we take the time to remember the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States and the countless contributions that generations of Korean Americans have made to our nation. As journalists, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and teachers, Korean Americans are an essential part of our history and our community. Their accomplishments have immeasurably enriched our culture and contribute to the rich, vibrant and diverse tapestry of America. Happy Korean American Day!”

Congressman Ted Lieu (CA-33):

“Today, I join my colleagues in celebrating Korean American Day and recognizing the many contributions Korean Americans have made to our nation. With nearly two million Korean Americans living in the United States, their cultural, economic, and civic impacts are far reaching. From Korean cuisine to Korean pop culture, or ‘Hallyu Wave,’ our country has vastly benefited from a more diverse and inclusive society, once again reminding us of America’s legacy as a nation of immigrants. I am honored to represent many Korean Americans who call Los Angeles County and California home and join them in celebrating our Korean American community.”

Congresswoman Grace Meng (NY-06):

“On Korean American Day, we commemorate the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States and recognize the subsequent contributions the Korean community has made to all sectors of our society. From business to the arts to academia and public service, the Korean American community has flourished, and in doing so, has helped build America’s prosperity. I am proud to celebrate Korean American day with the vibrant Korean American community in my district and across the country.”

Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03):

“I am proud to represent a thriving Korean American community in the Third Congressional District of Virginia. Today, we commemorate the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States. Korean American Day gives the country the opportunity to reflect on the many contributions Korean Americans have made to our nation, and I am honored to join my colleagues in celebrating this important day.”

Congressman Alan Lowenthal (CA-47):

“Korean American Day is our annual opportunity to showcase and honor the many economic and cultural contributions that Korean Americans have made to our country, and the continuing contributions they make on a daily basis to the fabric of the American tapestry. I am proud to represent the thriving Korean Business District in Garden Grove and the thousands of Korean Americans who call California’s 47th Congressional District home.”

Congressman Scott Peters (CA-52):

“On Korean American Day, I am proud to join the more than 20,000 Koreans and Korean Americans who live in San Diego in commemorating the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States. Since the first Koreans arrived on our nation’s shores, they have embodied the American Dream. In San Diego, they are business owners, educators, scientists and civic leaders, who add a rich heritage to our community. As a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, I am proud to represent this growing community and will continue to work toward a better future for us all.”

Congressman Adam Smith (WA-09):

“Our country’s diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Korean Americans contribute to our rich history and promising future as decorated members of our Armed Forces, innovative small business owners, passionate civil rights leaders, and creative artists. I join in commemorating Korean American Day to honor the many accomplishments of the Korean American Community and celebrate Korean Americans in the 9th District of Washington state and across our country.”

Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12):

“Today I join the nation in celebrating Korean Americans and their decades worth of contributions to the continued growth and prosperity of this nation. Since the arrival of the first immigrants 114 years ago, Korean men, women and children embody the rich cultural makeup that exists in our communities nationwide. I am particularly thankful for Korean Americans of New Jersey’s 12th district for their commitment as service members, business owners, academics and medical professionals. In celebrating Korean American day I also look forward to continued years of valued partnership as we work to continue our nation’s legacy of diversity and inclusion.”


The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) is comprised of Members of Congress of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and Members who have a strong dedication to promoting the well-being of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Currently chaired by Congresswoman Judy Chu, CAPAC has been addressing the needs of the AAPI community in all areas of American life since it was founded in 1994.