8 Reasons for Asian American and Pacific Islanders to Speak Out on Immigration Reform

Contrary to public perception, immigration reform is not just about “those Mexicans crossing the border” and supporting the integration of Latinos in mainstream America. Immigration reform dominated the Asian Pacific Islander Week in January and last month, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP) hosted a panel hearing with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and national leaders in AAPI immigration to shed more light on this issue.

Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) recently discussed several ways in which Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are impacted by our broken immigration system, while Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) spoke about the importance of building a broad coalition for immigration reform at the APAP forum.

AAPI visibility and involvement in immigration reform is crucial to building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic alliance in favor of an immigration system that guarantees fairness to everyone. If you are an AAPI, here are some reasons you should get involved, in no particular order:

1. Fight Historical Exclusion: The concept of “illegal immigration” can be traced back to discourses surrounding the immigration of Chinese workers to the United States in the 1800s. Once upon a time, there was no such thing as “illegal immigration” to the Americas, hence the joke that the first “illegal immigrants” were actually Europeans. (On this note, see “Columbus Go Home!”) Actually, “my family came legally” is often just a myth, since very little federal regulation existed for immigrants until the late 1800s. Starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, we see the origin of a discourse that defines people as illegal, distinguishing between desirable (European) and undesirable (Chinese and Others) immigration.

2. Disproportionate Numbers: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up close to 5% of the U.S. population, but comprise 12% (1.5 million) of the undocumented immigrant population, and about 40% of undocumented students in the University of California system. Up to 70% of AAPIs are first generation immigrants; AAPIs are the fastest growing minority population in many states, but there is a lack of policy initiative towards AAPI communities. By 2050, 1 in 10 Americans will be of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.

3. Long Waiting Lines: Family members from China, Philippines, and India face some of the longest waiting times, and are more likely to be caught in family unification visa backlogs. According to Rep. Honda, Asia accounts for 6 out of the 10 countries facing visa backlogs. At the APAP panel, Ben de Guzman from the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity spoke about a bill to expedite visa processing for adult children of Filipino veterans, who often have to wait 16 to 18 years to reunite with their families. The legislation, likely to be attached to a comprehensive immigration reform bill, represents one of the few ways that reform speaks to segments of the AAPI population.

4. Overcoming Stigma: Asian American and Pacific Islander communities walk the parenthetical line in the debate over immigration reform; since AAPI immigrants are not automatically profiled as undocumented, they have held fewer conversations and developed fewer tools to combat the issue. An undocumented youth, B Chan, writes that “invisibility is like a double-edged sword for undocumented students. On the positive side, being invisible allows these students to live in the United States without being profiled as undocumented. But this is not necessarily a good thing.” Indeed, being invisible can mean loneliness and an unwillingness to share the hardship of being undocumented due to shame and stigma.

5. Foreign Worker Visas: H-1B visas are among the most popular and controversial non-immigrant employment visas. They allow highly skilled immigrants to work in the U.S. while applying for adjustment of status to permanent residency. Each year, the caps are met easily, though the recent recession has made the U.S. a less attractive destination. Senate Democrats want to stamp a green card to degrees received in technological fields; for now, issuing H-1B visas is a way to keep foreign talent in the country and attract the “best and brightest.” However, workplace abuse, lack of provisions for foreign-born children of H1-B workers, and massive backlogs makes this one of the top issues concerning immigrants from countries like India, who alone make up one-third of the H1-B applicant pool.

6. Language Barriers: An estimated 40-50% of AAPIs are limited-English proficient. Many AAPI families have reported that they make decisions without knowing their rights and have difficulty accessing medical facilities due to language barriers, which means they are more likely to face exploitation or get in trouble with the law. Neither the English-only movement nor living in the shadows encourage integration of AAPI immigrants, 70% of whom are either refugees or first-generation.

7. Immigration Securitization: While greater economic integration has stimulated tolerance of diversity, immigration is also framed in terms of security, especially in the aftermath of 9-11. While immigration initiatives from state and local law enforcement usually target Latinos, South Asians also bore the brunt of measures targeting people who look a certain way. Post 9-11 initiatives such as Alien Absconder and special registration of non-immigrant men over the age of 16 from certain countries led to many innocents in indefinite detention and the deportation of at least 13,000 men, devastating many South Asian families.

8. Leadership Through Empowerment: We don’t have many well-known AAPI leaders in politics besides Mike Honda and Judy Chu. But the young AAPI generation holds a lot of promise and is a crucial part of the youth movement for immigration reform. Take a look at this video of Ju Hong imploring other Korean immigrants to not be silent anymore, or Mohammad Abdollahi here speaking about being queer and undocumented, which should explain why he cannot go back to Iran. Coming out, and then being out, is the first step to empowering countless other immigrants in our communities to do the same. It makes us stronger, more visible as a community, and soon, a political voting bloc that can no longer be ignored and cast aside.

Disclaimer: The term “AAPI” is used in this article as a label for political purposes and to recognize a  pan-ethnic identity. We realize that the label covers a broad range of racial and ethnic groups and individuals who may fall under this designation may not necessarily identify as AAPI.

Video Credit: APAP

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