Mainstream Asian American Organizations Should Advocate for Undocumented Immigrants

27 June, 2009: A man holds U.S and Vietnamese flags at the New York City Immigrant Parade. (Photo: Jammick)A man holds US and Vietnamese flags at the New York City Immigrant Parade, June 27, 2009. (Photo: Jammick)Currently, there are more than 1 million undocumented Asian Pacific Islander (API) immigrants living in the US. In California, where I reside, there are nearly a half million undocumented API immigrants. However, because current public discourse regarding immigration is Hispanic/Latino centric, API undocumented immigrants are invisible in mainstream discourse. Additionally, due to the API community’s strong stigma against being undocumented, many are afraid to reveal their status and live in the shadows without support from their community.

In my case, my family came to the US in 2004 through a tourist visa. My family soon applied for green card status through my mother’s employer. However, when our green card application was denied, my entire family became undocumented. The situation became even more complicated when border patrol agents arrested me while I was traveling alone after graduating from high school. I spent my summer before college in detention until I was released on a bail.

As an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, I am fully aware of the lack of API visibility impact on the immigrant rights movement. Even after I was released, I spent my entire four years in college traumatized, isolated and in deep fear of deportation. Because immigration was framed and presented as strictly a Hispanic/Latino issue, I was not aware of the large number of API undocumented immigrants.

I was finally relieved from the fear of deportation when immigrant rights activists/organizers put enough pressure on the Obama administration to announce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Coincidentally, it was on the day of my college graduation. I moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school thereafter. I started to understand the importance of joining the immigrant rights movement and quickly became involved. I began to organize the API undocumented community with ASPIRE, the country’s first API undocumented youth group. ASPIRE tremendously helped me to overcome my struggle and understand the situation I am in.

After joining the movement, I became more aware that I greatly benefited from the enormous sacrifices of immigrant rights activists/organizers. Moreover, I realized that was very fortunate to surround myself with those who encouraged me to overcome struggles as an undocumented immigrant. Nevertheless, I am also aware that there are thousands of other API undocumented immigrants without access to much-needed support. The Obama administration has deported more than 2 million people. Of those two million, 250,000 were API. I would have been part of that statistic, were it not for activists’ and organizers’ efforts to stop deportations.

In recent years, the immigration issue has become even more contentious as the federal government continuously fails to provide any solutions. The Republican Party’s recent effort to shut down DHS to stop President Obama’s executive action shows the party’s extreme hostility toward immigrants. It is not surprising, however, given that the Republican Party heavily relies on its gerrymandered white conservative majority districts that are very hostile to demographic changes and non-whites. A major party’s willingness to paralyze a government agency demonstrated the party’s extremist element to the public. This anachronistic Republican Party will most likely dominate Congress until 2022. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is busy deflecting the issue without offering alternative strategies to solve the issue in order to generate more votes during the 2016 election.

Despite this debacle and the stalemate on immigration, the US still remains one of the most desirable destinations for immigrants around the world. The API community’s population growth rate is faster than other groups.’ Without drastic changes at the international level, this trend won’t be changed easily, and the immigration pattern will become even more complex under globalization. Some anti-immigration proposals, such as building fences to halt immigration, blatantly reveal their proposers’ inability – or unwillingness – to understand the complexity of the issue.

As the debate stagnates at the federal level, the immigrant rights movement is shifting its focus to the state and local levels to protect undocumented immigrants. Last November, the immigrant rights movement built pressure such that President Obama announced administrative relief to protect undocumented immigrants as Congress failed to produce an immigration bill. Under the new plan, it is expected that up to 5 million undocumented immigrants will benefit. The program itself is currently on hold, but most experts say this will be only temporary. Many immigrant rights organizations are patiently preparing themselves to implement the new policy.

For many API organizations, the recent shift of the immigrant rights movement to state and local levels provides new opportunities to provide support for immigrants while building a new base. I am aware that at the national level, there are genuine efforts among API organizations to increase the community’s low civic engagement. According to a Pew Research Center study, during the November 2014 election, only 3 out of 10 Asian American voters cast their ballots.

As the fastest growing population, the API community members must increase their civic participation on issues directly impacting them to build a strong base and stronger alliances. Immigration is one of those key issues that API organizations should be part of.

In California, there are numerous model legislations that other states can implement. For instance, in 2013, the immigrant rights movement in California organized themselves to pass the Trust Act. The purpose of the bill was to restrict the controversial Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, a deportation dragnet that allows local law enforcement agents to act like immigration agents, blurring federal and local jurisdictions. The bill helped to restore trust between the immigrant community and local law enforcement, where previously the lack of immigration status often deterred undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes. In 2014, the Obama administration replaced S-Comm with PEP, while maintaining the controversial components of S-Comm. In response, there is another movement building to pass even stronger legislation, Trust Act 2.0.

Certainly, this will be a very difficult task to accomplish. Also, it will be even more difficult to deconstruct Hispanic/Latino centric narratives so that the immigrant rights movement can embrace API organizations. But, this narrative can be reshaped and reframed by focusing on transcendent common values such as equality, justice and compassion. Moreover, there is no sign indicating that Asian immigration will slow down and the immigration issue won’t disappear anytime soon. As the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese concentration camps under the Executive Order 9066 have taught us, the API community has a long complex history with the US immigration policy.

Lastly, for many API organizations, this will be a worthwhile effort to strengthen the community’s political capital while empowering more than one million undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows of our society. The API community needs to increase civic participation because, as with so many other issues, the mainstream discourse leaves out the impact of legislation on API lives. Unless we provide a louder, more robust voice on matters like immigration, our voices will not be heard, and we will continue to live in the shadows. The API community needs to be more involved in immigration debates so that we can support and empower each other regardless of immigration status.