Pacific Islander immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Pacific Islander immigrants have probably received less attention than most other immigrant communities, more Pacific Islanders reside in the United States–including the Pacific Island state Hawaii–than remain in many of their island homelands. Coming from many separate islands with many very different cultures and languages, Islander immigrants are almost impossible to identify in early U.S. censuses, in which they were typically counted under the category of “others” or lumped with Asians.

Pacific Islander immigration to the United States is best understood by recognizing that Pacific Oceanic peoples have a long history of long-distance ocean voyages. Prehistoric inhabitants of South Pacific islands–especially the widespread archipelagoes of Melanesia and PolynesiansPolynesia–constructed sturdy canoes and developed surprisingly advanced navigation systems to find their way around the distantly separated islands. Their island-based regional interactions resulted in marriages, trade contacts, and political relationships, including warfare. During the sixteenth century, the Islanders’ regional dynamics were disrupted by the arrival of European explorers, who brought novel technologies, new diseases, and very different cultural concepts to the region.Pacific Islander immigrantsPacific Islander immigrants[cat]PACIFIC ISLANDER IMMIGRANTS;Pacific Islander immigrants[04030][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Pacific Islander immigrants[04030]

The American Presence in the Pacific

Over the ensuing centuries, the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants came increasingly under the domination of Euro-American political rule, economic expansion, and religious beliefs. With increasing contacts came increased population movements, including European settlements on many islands. Many indigenous inhabitants moved away from the islands; some relocated within the Pacific region, others went as far as Europe and the Americas. Most of these population movements were sporadic, small scale, and poorly documented.

By the mid-nineteenth century, American whaling ships were operating regularly in the Pacific Ocean, and Samoans and Hawaiians began to work in the whaling industry. Ultimately, some of these people ended up far from their island homes. Oceanic people were further incorporated into American spheres by the sudden U.S. colonial expansion into the Philippines, GuamGuam, Samoa, and Hawaii between 1898 and 1900, when the United States annexed the Hawaiian islands and occupied Spain’s Pacific Island possessions after winning the Spanish-American War[Spanish American War]Spanish-American War.

Extensive military, missionary, and trading links between the United States and its Pacific Island possessions helped prompt large numbers of Islanders to immigrate to the mainland United States. During World War II (1941-1945), the presence of American military bases on many of the region’s islands brought the U.S. war with Japan directly into the homelands of Pacific Islanders. The result was tremendous carnage and destruction that would contribute to postwar migration.

Push-Pull Factors<index-term><primary>Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and Pacific Islander immigrants[Pacific Islander immigrants]</primary></index-term>

Pacific Islander immigration can be understood broadly as the product of several push factors that operated across the islands, and also several pull factors that made the United States a compelling migration destination. Push factors have included local political conditions, such as Tongan immigrantsTonga’s monarchy, which many commoners find oppressive. Natural disasters;and Pacific Islanders[Pacific Islanders]Environmental disasters have also been important, especially hurricanes, which often create havoc on small islands. Other push factors have included economic conditions, especially low wages on many islands; limited higher educational facilities; health services that are inadequate for treating some ailments; and limited opportunities for skilled and professional workers.

The most important pull factors that have drawn Islanders to the United States have been relief from all the Islanders’ push factors: nonoppressive government, greater safety from natural disasters, higher wages, and almost unlimited educational and professional opportunities. Moreover, established Pacific Islander communities within the United States provide kin networks that ease adjustments to immigration by giving newcomers places to stay on their arrival and strong support groups. Local contacts also assist new immigrants with health, educational, and work opportunities.

Population Data

The hundreds of populated islands spread across the Pacific Ocean, particularly in the South Pacific, are made of independent nations, European dependencies, and American possessions. A sizable number of Pacific Islanders live on territories that were incorporated into the United States during the late nineteenth century. Some sporadic Pacific Islander immigration to the mainland United States probably occurred before that time, but large numbers of Islanders did not begin coming to the United States until the 1950’s and 1960’s and particularly during the 1970’s.

At the time of the 1990 U.S. Census, 365,000 Pacific Islanders lived in the United States. This figure compares with about 30,000 Islanders living in Australia and 531,000 in New Zealand. Only ten years later, the U.S. Pacific Islander population had jumped to 874,000. However, a variety of changes in the methods used in the 2000 U.S. Census mean that the 2000 data are not directly comparable to earlier census information. For example, the 2000 figure for total Islanders includes some people who also reported some non-Pacific Islander ancestry.

Approximately 58 percent of the 2000 U.S. Census group counted as “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” were living in Hawaii;Pacific Islander immigrantsHawaii and California;Pacific Islander immigrantsCalifornia, with sizeable populations also found in Washington, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New York State, and Florida. Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians, made up more than 22 percent of the population of Honolulu.

In the mainland United States, significant proportions of Pacific Islanders lived in urban locations, with major concentrations in California (especially Hayward, Vallejo, Oceanside, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Daly City), Utah (West Valley City, Salt Lake City), and Washington (Tacoma). Much of this population concentration has occurred as the result of Chain migration;Pacific Islanderschain migration, with important founding families often identifiable in many of these locations.

In Mormon immigrants;Pacific IslandersMissionaries;MormonUtah;Pacific Islander immigrantsUtah, religion plays a special role. Many of the early Hawaiian and Tongan immigrantsTongan immigrants to the state were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is better known as the Mormon Church. The church has long sent missionaries to the islands and has had particular success in Tonga, and Mormon links have been strong throughout Utah, Hawaii, and Tonga, which explains ongoing shifts in population. There are also strong connections between the Mormon tertiary education facility, Brigham Young University (BYU), which was founded in Provo, Utah, in 1875, and BYU-Hawaii, which was founded in 1955. The Mormon Church assisted many Pacific Islander church members to immigrate to the mainland United States, especially to California;Pacific Islander immigrantsCalifornia and Utah. These connections are ongoing, and continue to facilitate immigration of Pacific Islanders.

The 2000 U.S. Census also reported that the largest Pacific Islander group in the United States was Hawaii;native peoplesNative Hawaiians (401,162 people), followed by Samoan immigrantsSamoans (133,281), and GuamGuamanians or Chamorros (92,611). Approximately 70 percent of the Pacific Islander population in the United States fit into these three ethnic categories. Additional groups represented in the census included Tongans (36,840), Fijian immigrantsFijians (13,581), Marshallese immigrantsMarshallese (6,650), Palauan immigrantsPalauans (3,469), and Tahitian immigrantsTahitians (3,313).

Census data have also shown that members of these immigrant groups are young, on average. They include large numbers of individuals in their child-bearing years, and children. Because Oceanic peoples favor large families, it seemed that the U.S. Pacific Islander population would continue to grow rapidly through natural increase, along with ongoing immigration from the islands. Another projected trend was a growth in the number of Pacific Islanders who identify with more than one ethnic group. There are already high levels of Intermarriage;Pacific Islandersintermarriage among different island communities, and also with non-Pacific Islander people. Although this generalization holds less with Tongan immigrantsTongan and Fijian immigrantsFijian populations, it suggests that Pacific Islander communities in the United States are increasing in their internal diversity. Elderly immigrants;Pacific IslandersOlder Islanders tend to worry that marriage with outsiders will weaken communal cohesion and eventually cause the loss of languages and cultural traditions, but members of the younger generation typically do not share these concerns.

Intermarriage and other intercultural links are also facilitated by participation in church activities. Many Christian congregations offer services in Pacific Islander languages, and some have Pacific Islander ministers in areas with high numbers of Oceanic people. Pacific Islanders living in the United States tend to identify socially through their memberships in specific church congregations, much as people living on the islands identify themselves as originating from specific villages on specific islands.

Pacific Islander American Culture

Although Pacific Islander groups originate from different island archipelagoes, and their members possess different cultural practices, and speak different languages, certain broad cultural norms prevail across the islands that have been imported to the United States in varying degrees. For example, in contrast to the American cultural emphasis on individualistic traits, Oceanic peoples place greater value on collectivism, which encourages them to subordinate their personal interests to those of the family or wider kinship network. This trait may often be described by members of the Pacific Islander community as the respect owed by young people to their elders, and there are many cultural ideals about how it should be expressed, including lack of questioning of the older generation by youngsters, and the lowering of one’s eyes and body height before elders. Differences between American and Islander styles of socialization sometimes result in conflicts between generational groups. Elder immigrants believe in greater levels of communal involvement and decision-making power by family networks, while their American-born children tend to focus more on their individual needs and desires and personal decision-making.

Divisions between the younger and older generations also may be exacerbated by Language issues;Pacific Islander immigrantslanguage differences. Older immigrants typically find it more challenging to learn new languages than their children do, which often means that the children have greater skills in English than their parents or grandparents. Pacific Islander children who grow up the United States also tend not to learn the languages of their parents or to learn to speak them only at rudimentary levels. Community elders may consequently feel disappointment when young members of their communities do not speak their home languages well enough to participate in traditional orations at culturally important events, such as weddings and funerals.

At the same time, non-English-speaking family members may find their employment opportunities are limited and also have difficulty communicating with mainstream cultural brokers, such as teachers, community leaders, and government officials. Outsiders often do not realize the extent of these language problems when they interact with Pacific Islanders, whose cultural norms encourage politeness that may be expressed through head nods, or other body language that seems to indicate agreement or understanding to Americans.

Accustomed to a communal way of life, Pacific Islanders often cook and eat together and live in close proximity to one another. This sometimes translates to situations in which members of extended families share American houses designed for small nuclear families. Their non-Islander neighbors and local social workers and health authorities may find it difficult to understand why so many people would wish to live together. Pacific Islanders also tend to view kinship ties in a more expansive manner than non-Islander Americans. For example, they are more likely to include all their extended family members in their conception of “family,” not merely members of their nuclear families, as Americans are more likely to think of “family.”

These broader conceptions of family may also include Adoption;Pacific Islandersadopted siblings. In the Pacific, people often practice formal and informal adoption. For example, if a woman has no biological children, her brother may give her one or two of his own children, whom she will then raise as her own. The adoptions may never be formalized, and this arrangement is considered to be an expression of love from a brother for his sister, and does not devalue the adopted child or children according to local norms. Children may also live for considerable periods of time with relatives in order to attend schools or for other reasons. Many of these informal adoptions are never documented officially. For this reason, often Pacific people may describe households with fluctuating numbers of children and acknowledge as “sisters” and “brothers” individuals who may not even be biologically or legally related to them. These practices can cause problems to families wishing to immigrate to the United States together, or who are in the United States and wish to obtain health care and educational benefits.

Pacific Islanders typically settled in towns in the United States that already have sizeable Pacific Islander populations. This allows them to replicate much of their island lifestyles if they so desire. Older immigrants especially wish to retain important aspects of their home cultures. For example, Samoan immigrantsSamoans practice their Fa’a-Samoa belief system, the “Samoan way,” and Tongan immigrantsTongans their Anga Fakatonga belief system, or “Tongan way.” At times, however, maintaining cultural norms may simply mean eating the same kinds of food that is typically consumed in the islands.

U.S.-Pacific Island Links

Many Pacific Islanders living in the United States during the early twenty-first century believed that they would one day Return migration;Pacific Islandersreturn to their island homelands. This belief would be more typical of the older first-generation immigrants than younger American-born family members. Reverse migration does occur, but less frequently than immigrants typically imagine when they first arrive in the United States. The initial dream of immigrants is to make a lot of money and then retire to the islands and live out their lives in style. In reality, by the time many Elderly immigrants;Pacific Islanderselderly members of the Pacific Islander community are ready to retire, they find little in the islands to which to return. Many of their family members are in the United States, and many of their old friends and networks are spread across the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other islands. Elderly Islanders may also have health needs that are best treated in the United States. Some people do, however, maintain strong connections to their island homelands that draw them back.

Members of the Brigham Young University football team performing a Polynesian war dance under the leadership of one of the team’s many Polynesian American players before a 2006 game. For many young Pacific Islanders, football has provided a ticket to college education in the United States, and some of them have achieved prominence in professional football.

(WireImage/Getty Images)

More immigrants return to the islands for temporary visits than ever return permanently. There is much prestige in visiting, and providing gifts for those who remain. Moreover, maintaining links to the homelands and their people are important for community well-being and self-identity.

In addition to taking gifts with them on visits home, people in the United States often send Remittances of earnings;Pacific Islandersremittances, in the form of money or goods, back to the islands. Island homelands benefit immensely from these cash infusions into their local economies. Some immigrants load large shipping containers with goods to send home. Like other traditions, this one means more to older members of the immigrant communities than to their offspring. Although many young people oppose the idea of sending remittances and gifts, they sometimes become involved in this exchange network. There is a tradition in both the United States, and other diaspora communities of sending misbehaving youngsters back to their homelands for socialization into appropriate cultural norms. After miscreant children have spent a year in the islands looked after by extended family members, they may be deemed sufficiently well behaved to be returned to their U.S. homes.

An issue for all ethnic community members living in the United States is the prevalence of Stereotyping, ethnic;Pacific Islandersstereotypes and ongoing discrimination. Pacific Islanders may be easy targets because they are often identifiable based on their appearance, which means that American-born members of the community may be equally vulnerable. Members of Pacific Islander communities often are active in service organizations and educational initiatives to counteract the local effects of these stereotypes. Communities may also harshly sanction Pacific Islanders who act according to the stereotypes, such as those who join gangs, or are violent to their families since this behavior affects the entire group in a negative manner. Communities also celebrate the achievements of Pacific Islanders and strive to make mainstream Americans aware of these success stories and the history of their ethnic group in the United States.Pacific Islander immigrants

Further Reading
  • Duranti, Alessandro, Elinor Ochs, and Elia K. Ta’ase. “Change and Tradition in Literacy Instruction in a Samoan American Community.” In Many Pathways to Literacy: Young Children Learning with Siblings, Grandparents, Peers, and Communities, edited by Eve Gregory, Susi Long, and Dinah Volk. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004. Study of Samoan methods of instruction and how these may be incorporated into American educational institutions.
  • Halualani, Rona Tamiko. “Connecting Hawaiians: The Politics of Authenticity in the Hawaiian Diaspora.” In Intercultural Alliances: Critical Transformation, edited by Mary Jane Collier. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003. Discussion of cultural authenticity, or what it means to be Hawaiian for people living outside Hawaii–a study that has implications for all Pacific Islanders.
  • Lee, Helen Morton. Tongans Overseas: Between Two Shores. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. Anthropological study of the lives of Tongan community members living in Melbourne, Australia that provides insights into the challenges that Pacific Islanders face when they immigrate to the United States.
  • McGrath, Barbara Burns.“Seattle Fa’a Samoa.” The Contemporary Pacific 14, no. 2 (2002): 307-340. Discussion of how Samoan immigrants living in Seattle, Washington, have structured their lives to maintain Samoan culture while adapting to the United States.
  • Small, Cathy A. Voyages: From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Anthropological study of twenty-five years of migration from Tonga to Northern California viewed from the perspectives of both the immigrants to the United States and people who remained in Tonga.
  • Spickard, Paul R., Joanne L. Rondilla, and Debbie Hippolite Wright, eds. Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Broad history of Pacific Islander migrations across the Pacific Ocean with an emphasis on their contemporary incursions into the United States.
  • Wurtzburg, Susan J. “Households and Families: Micronesia and Polynesia.” In Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women’s Studies: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge, edited by C. Kramarae and D. Spender. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 2000. Brief outline of commonalities in family structures and social organization across the Pacific Islands that is applicable to understanding the challenges that Pacific Islander families face in the United States.

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

Australian and New Zealander immigrants


Chain migration



Mormon immigrants

Remittances of earnings



Categories: History