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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Traversing Borders: Possibilities for Art Informing Public Policy Analysis

Art opens up the door of interpretative possibilities—art can link us to new ways of seeing the everyday and can expand new modes of inquiry that hold potential to deeply inform public policy. Dominant literature in public policy relies heavily on quantitative forms of analysis and, more recently with a methodological shift away from positivist paradigms, qualitative data, through interviews and ethnographic research. Although there has been a methodological expansion with the inclusion of qualitative methods, those methods still remain validated by quantitative data. This essay offers another method of research inquiry for public policy analysis that addresses the gaps between “hard” and “soft” data to a place where meaning is interpretative and the boundaries of meaning are expanded to include different ways of approaching immigration issues. This article focuses on Nguyen Thao Phan’s mixed media installation Renal Calculus, an art object that interrogates and opens up questions about U.S. immigration policies in Asian American communities. Asian American immigration history is crucial to understanding the genesis of U.S. policies on immigration. Currently, with over 12 million Asian American immigrants and more than 1.5 million undocumented immigrants from Asian countries, linking Asian American immigration history to current policy debates remains evermore urgent.[i] Through an analysis of Renal Calculus, this article expands upon current immigration debates to include Asian American immigration history, discusses the categorization of Asian bodies as modes of border control, and examines the containment and surveillance of Asian American communities.

Renal Calculus is a mixed media installation piece that takes its name from the Latin word for kidney. Phan’s installation featured at the School of the Art Institute’s 2013 Masters of Fine Arts Show at the Sullivan Galleries in Chicago, Illinois. Phan’s artwork is simple yet rich in meaning. On a steel rectangular table sits a glass encasement of a kidney stone about three inches long and two inches wide. The kidney stone is displayed with a gold-rimmed magnifying glass (see Figure 1). On the wall above the glass display is a projection of two contrasting images. On the left is a video loop of the kidney stone magnified, revealing crystallized formations. On the right is a still of Frances Alÿs’s “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego” postcard photograph of the Pacific Ocean with the words below them framed out (see Figure 2). As the kidney stone becomes animated through video, Alÿs’s photographed ocean slowly disappears from view with a progressing black out of the image from the bottom to the top. The journey to understanding the piece is one where the viewer must investigate its nuances and the messages that lie in between to unlock its possibilities that inform us of our current historical moment.

I argue the visual and narrative elements of Renal Calculus shed light onto immigration issues in the United States to expand the historical and transnational scope of the debate. In the first part of this essay, I examine how Phan’s citation of Alÿs’s “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego” postcard made in 2011 critiques dominant debates on immigration in terms of Mexicans as the main targets and Mexico as the main source of illegal immigration to reframe the origins of U.S. immigration policies to Asian American history. In the second section, I center my discussion on issues of categorization methods as forms of border control through an analysis of Phan’s narrative description of the kidney stone’s journey across transnational borders. Lastly, I focus on the installation of the kidney stone itself as a metaphor for issues of containment and surveillance in Asian American immigrant communities. Historical references, transnational connections, and structural critiques become lost amidst policy debates that focus on contemporary issue–centered solutions devoid of historical and transnational resonances. Art provides the space where these gaps can be addressed and can generate the possibilities of opening up policy debates.

Transnational Border Contexts

News coverage and political discourse on immigration typically focus on Mexican Americans and on land borders, but there are other routes to understanding immigration history and migration processes. This section discusses Phan’s use of Alÿs’s “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego” postcard and transnational borders. Images of Mexicans illegally crossing the border became the dominant scene portrayed in the mass media and became legally reified in political discourse. In his 2008 State of the Union Address, U.S. President George W. Bush declared, “America needs to secure our borders. . . . We’re increasing worksite enforcement, deploying fences and advanced technologies to stop illegal crossings.”[ii]

In 2006, to “combat the war on terror” and to secure U.S. borders as a measure for national security, Bush enacted the Secure Fence Act. The Secure Fence Act authorized an extension of the U.S.-Mexico fenced border by 700 miles, focusing specifically on California and Arizona. Alongside fence expansion was the increase in Border Patrol staffing. Investing financial means into protecting the United States from Mexican migrants distorts the U.S. immigration debate geographically and historically. Alternate migration paths and immigrant populations are left out of mainstream political discourse. In addition, an analysis of the global political and economic situation becomes erased from the larger national immigration debate. In Immigrants in the United States: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population, Steven A. Camarota writes that illegal immigrants are predominately poor, uneducated, and uninsured and a “net fiscal drain” on the welfare and public education systems.[iii]  Instead of asking why there are large numbers of immigrants and refugees from countries in the Global South seeking job opportunities and residency in the United States, the U.S. becomes fixed as a nation that suffers from an influx of poor illegal migrants. The debate becomes divorced from extreme economic disparities and issues of war between countries in the Global North and Global South. Nevertheless, the targeting of Mexicans represents a racialized national discourse that is not isolated in the historical context of U.S. immigration, which will further be discussed in the next section.

In Renal Calculus, Phan juxtaposes close-up images of the kidney stone with Alÿs’s “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego” image of a vast panoramic shot of the Pacific Ocean. Alÿs is a Belgian artist living in Mexico City; his work comments directly on spatial justice. Postcards typically capture a location that marks where a person is visiting and is sent to show proof of having passed through a place or visited a particular destination. Here, the notion of the postcard plays an ironic role, being neither a solid destination nor a location—much like the plight of undocumented immigrants living in limbo in the United States, not being fully recognized as citizens, which would assure them legal rights and protections as citizens.

The postcard is a color photograph of the Pacific Ocean. An endless body of water stretched beyond the horizon takes up the photograph. The waters are a calm deep greenish-blue color. Below the image, Alÿs writes the caption:

In order to go from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the Mexico/United States border, I followed a perpendicular route away from the fence and circumnavigated the globe, heading 67° South East, North East and South East again until I reached my departure point. The project remained free and clear of all critical implications beyond the physical displacement of the artist.

Phan strategically chose to leave out the text while maintaining the integrity of the photograph. The departure away from the text reveals an underlying narrative that guides interpretation of the photograph’s meanings. The text contextualizes the photograph in relationship to U.S.-Mexico borders, but Phan’s reuse of the photograph, consciously cropping out the words, expands interpretive possibilities on the issues of borders and migration.

Water as a place of migration and place of enforcing immigration policy enters the conversation. Migration over water pushes the boundaries of how the immigration debate is remapped not only along the U.S.-Mexico land border but also over the waters, where boundaries between countries on the other side of the Pacific come into the picture.

As “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego” image begins to fade, the disappearance of the ocean incites larger questions about the disappearance of these migratory paths. Alÿs’s photograph not only references a different way of migrating to the United States but alludes to other modes of migration and populations of migrants. By reconfiguring how people can arrive to the United States through the use of “The Loop, Tijuana-San Diego,” a history of immigration exclusion and strict border regulation is invoked. Although the intention of the artist does not directly evoke this connection to U.S. immigration history, Phan’s installation provokes contemplation of U.S. immigration laws. Phan’s aestheticized use of the postcard panoramic of the Pacific Ocean opens up room for a more expansive analysis of migration to include a history of Asian migration to the United States. In the next section, I discuss a few significant immigration policies that have greatly impacted Asian migration to the United States  and marked Asian bodies “foreign” and “illegal.”[iv]

Categorization as Modes of Border Control

Categorizing Asian migrants has been a critical mode of border control. I focus specifically on the notion of how categorizing Asian immigrants on the spectrum of deviants to victims can restrict or expedite immigration processes. These categories impact the rights and protections people can claim as citizens of the United States, all of which relate to how the U.S. government views its relationship to the population under review, respective to the historical time period.

In Phan’s narratives of the process of securing the kidney stone across customs and U.S. borders, she writes:

I thought the stone would not be able to come to America because its origin was suspicious. If I listed it as a “kidney stone” on the declaration form from the Vietnamese post office, the stone would not be able to depart. So we thought of a tactic. He labeled the kidney stone as a “souvenir rock” and displayed it in an ordinary gift box. The stone, with its new identity as a souvenir, arrived to America in the month of November. . . . Once the stone arrived to America, the land of liberty, thinking of the stone as a new immigrant . . .

As Phan writes, the kidney stone becomes a metaphor for an immigrant body traversing across transnational borders.

Historically, the immigration process for Asians to the United States has been filled with exclusion acts, quota limitations, and deportation clauses. As far back as 1875, Congress enacted the Page Act, which “forbid the entry of Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian contract laborers, women for the purpose of prostitution, and felons.”[v] As profits from the California Gold Rush started to decline during the post–Civil War era, Euro-Americans needed a “scapegoat” for their economic troubles and labeled the Chinese as those who were stealing their labor and wages.[vi] These increasing antiforeign sentiments in relation to labor paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act to pass in 1882. Moreover, the Immigration Act of 1917 had a section specifically titled the Asiatic Barred Zone Act. The act itself banned “insane,” “diseased defectives,” “criminals,” “prostitutes,” and “contract laborers.”[vii] The Asiatic Barred Zone expanded the ban on Chinese immigrants to most of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Then the Immigration Act of 1924 and the 1946 Luce-Celler Act placed quota limits on immigration, tokenizing who was allowed to immigrate to the United States. The history of immigration laws to the United States originated with the development of anti-Asian federal legislation that banned those deemed as deviant and thus undesirable from entering the country. The abject nature of the kidney stone itself represents this history of U.S. immigration law’s commitment to marking Asian bodies as deviant and thus unwanted.

Nevertheless, the history of Asian immigration to the United States has not always been one to ban or limit people from entry, but one where the support of Asian migration also served a political purpose. Marked as “refugees” under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistant Act in 1975, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laos refugees were able to seek U.S. assistance in the process of migration after the Vietnam War. The welcoming of Southeast Asian immigrants allowed the United States to play the heroes after the loss of the Vietnam War. Southeast Asians served the purpose of “helpless victim” that depended on American aid.[viii] As masses of Southeast Asian refugees move to the United States and lived in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of crime and violence, they became marked as criminals and their undocumented status assisted in their deportation.[ix] In 2002, the United States signed a treaty with Cambodia for repatriation, and in 2008 the U.S. and Vietnam signed a Repatriation Agreement to authorize the “return of Cambodian and Vietnamese citizens,” or deportation of the undocumented.

Currently, the Republican Party refuses to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants. Even though through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals youth are granted legal status, there is no clear pathway to citizenship.  Representative Darrell Issa stated, “It’s halfway—and it always has been—halfway between full amnesty and simply rejecting people.”[x] Nevertheless, to be granted “amnesty” implies acknowledgement of illegal immigration as criminal behavior by undocumented immigrants. The history of Asian migration to the United States has depended on how bodies of Asian migrants are marked and then dealt with.

How do migrants get across borders? How does their identity get mapped onto them through immigration policy? How does their categorization impact the rights they are granted upon arrival and during their stay? Renal Calculus offers an opportunity to ask these questions—to dig deeper into the history of Asian migration to the United States and examine how categorization of people has deeply impacted whether they were banned or welcomed into the country. The original identity of the kidney stone shifted in the migration process to pass customs and the oceanic border in order to be granted legal rights to enter the United States. This transgression of border controls critiques how people cross borders and the power of categorizing people to either bar migration or expedite its process.

Naming becomes an important element to Phan’s artwork. Although the kidney stone’s origins were from Vietnam, Phan titles her piece Renal Calculus, taken from the Latin word for kidney. The new identity becomes a label that carries over to the life of the immigrant who is able to make it to the United States but continues to be contained and surveilled in the assumption of perpetual foreign identity that becomes criminalized under the U.S. immigration and justice system.

Containment and Surveillance

The kidney stone is contained in a glass case next to a magnifying glass for the audience to interact with the kidney stone. In this final section, I discuss how the installation of the kidney stone in the glass case becomes a metaphor for containment, and the magnifying glass, along with the close-up screen shots of the kidney stone, becomes a metaphor for the surveillance of immigrant communities. Containment and surveillance intersect in terms of how immigrant communities are treated in the United States and relate directly to issues of deportation and the criminalization of immigrant bodies in the U.S. immigration system.

Many immigrant communities, such as Cambodian Americans who arrived as refugees with limited financial resources, relocate to low-income areas in the United States, where education is poor and rates of crime and violence are high.[xi] In these neighborhoods, containment of immigrant communities is a result of a lack of educational and employment opportunities that limit opportunities for economic and geographical mobility. Nevertheless, misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes become grounds for “law violations” that deem deportation a viable direction for immigrant “law offenders” who are targeted in these neighborhoods. In “Removing Refugees: U.S. Deportation Policy and the Cambodian-American Community” a report by the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic, Phirun Phal was convicted of two nonviolent offenses (possession of marijuana and using his brother’s ID for a speeding ticket).[xii] He was sentenced to sixteen months in prison but was released on good behavior. However, on the day of his release, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took Phal for immigration detention without regard for his testimony, and he was sentenced to deportation.

The criminalization and lack of economic, educational, and infrastructural investment in immigrant neighborhoods become critical reasons to the containment and surveillance of these communities. This is further exemplified in the case of the New York Police Department’s surveillance and mapping of Muslims across New York City as suspected terrorists after the events of September 11. According to “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims,”[xiii] the NYPD have been surveilling ethnic communities since 1919, mapping immigrant groups and their offspring to investigate suspected socialists, communists, and anarchists.

Furthermore, during World War II, under Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps or “War Relocation Camps” as perceived threats to national security. “The executive order resulted in the legally mandated, forced removal and imprisonment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were natural-born citizens.”[xiv] According to Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America, “The camps evidence the violent history of Asian American racialization by the state, a history that is often denied or at least elided by a pervasive national amnesia.”[xv]

The kidney stone displayed in the glass case reveals the containment of immigrant communities—asking the viewer to acknowledge this history. The magnifying glass next to the glass case invites the viewer to survey the kidney stone, to take a closer look into this foreign object. Allowing the audience to participant in this viewing implicates them in the process of surveillance and what it means to have the power to overlook something from a contained and safe distance. The distance between the kidney stone and the viewer reflects the distance between policy makers from the people they are making policies for as well as the distance between police enforcement and the communities themselves. These disconnects speak to the lack of critical engagement and conversations with the communities that immigration policies affect the most. The concept of containment and surveillance becomes revealed in Renal Calculus through a reflection of the kidney stone as a new immigrant and what it must go through to cross borders to finally arrive in the United States. The status of the kidney stone is as precarious as the status of immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants in the United States.


The minimalist aesthetics of Renal Calculus highlight larger immigration policy issues that invite the audience to expand their view beyond the U.S.-Mexico land borders to transnational oceanic migration, while invoking Asian immigration history into the core of U.S. immigration policy discussions. This essay is a commentary on the possibilities of art as a tool to inform policy, to allow us to look at various dimensions beyond the confines of the current political debate. Art can fill in the missing history, the transnational landscape of the debate, and evoke the slippery nature of what crossing borders means. Renal Calculus, when examined closely, allows us to see how borders can be transgressed, the political nature of categorizing immigrants, and the continued containment and surveillance of immigrant communities in the United States. The art piece does not provide any answers to the policy debates, but provokes important historical, transnational, and local questions as to how policy analysts are able to contextualize immigration policy and thus create policies that do not repeat modes of marking immigrant bodies as perpetually foreign and a possible threat to the nation. There are no final solutions, but this essay offers another mode of research inquiry and analysis that can offer a more comprehensive look at immigration policies.

[i] Thor, Doua. “Southeast Asia Resource Action Center Supports a Fair and Just Immigration System That Keeps Families Together.” Southeast Asia Resource Action Center Statement, 19 July 2006.

[ii] Bush, George W. State of the Union. Presented to Congress, Washington, DC, 28 January 2008.

[iii] Camarota, Steven A. Immigrants in the United States: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population. Center for Immigration Studies, August 2012.

[iv] Chan, Sucheng, ed. Remapping Asian American History. AltaMira Press, 2003, 47-66.

[v] Ibid., 56.

[vi] Ibid., 55.

[vii] 64th Congress, 1917 Immigration Act, H.R. 10384; Pub.L. 301; 39 Stat. 874, 1917, 874-898.

[viii] Chan, Sucheng, ed. Not Just Victims: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders. University of Illinois, 2003, x.

[ix] Hing, Ong Bill. “Deporting Cambodian Refugees: Justice Denied?” Crime & Delinquency 51, 2005, 265.

[x] Kim, Seung Min. “Darrell Issa to Introduce Immigration Bill.” POLITICO, 23 October 2013.

[xi] Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School. Removing Refugees: U.S. Deportation Policy and the Cambodian-American Community. Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic, Spring 2010, 1-2.

[xii] Ibid., i.

[xiii] The Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC), the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR), and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims. CLEAR Project, MACLC, and AALDEF, March 2013.

[xiv]Chambers-Letson, Joshua Takano. A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. New York University Press, December 2013, 100.

[xv] Ibid., 98.