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Op-Ed: Recognizing Undocumented Asian Americans

Number of Undocumented Asian Americans in California, courtesy of AAPI Data.


Alhambra , CA United States

Immigration is often seen as a Latino issue, but Asian Americans are also impacted and vulnerable. As immigrant rights organizers prepare for the December 20 statewide day of action supporting a clean Dream Act, it is important to consider the connections to Asian American communities.

On December 6, Alhambra’s Congressional Representative Judy Chu was arrested in an act of civil disobedience to demand fair immigration legislation for “dreamers,” undocumented youth protected from deportation under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program. In September, Trump rescinded the popular program.

Chinese American DACA-recipient, Gordon Ip, spoke to the LA Times in a September 8, 2017 article about his fear: “My family lived in hiding for so long, and I didn’t even know I was hidden,” he said. “Then, after DACA, I was proud to be able to thrive in this country. Now, I can’t do anything that will make me stand out in a crowd. I feel like I have to go back into hiding.”

Raised in Alhambra, Ip is among an estimated 200,000 San Gabriel Valley residents who are undocumented. According to numbers provided by the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, roughly 28 percent of those undocumented in the San Gabriel Valley are Asian.

“Asians aren’t talked about as being undocumented in the national narrative, even though they are the fastest growing population,” says Jane Hong, a professor of history at Occidental College. Nationally, an estimated 1.7 million Asians are undocumented, a number that has tripled in the last 15 years, according to AAPI Data.

Historically, Asians have been targeted as an unwelcome racial group. In the late-1800s, the economic anxieties of native-born Americans led to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. At the time, Chinese laborers were seen as driving down wages or taking jobs, an accusation now directed at Latino workers. “By 1924 an expansion of exclusion extended to all immigrants from Asia. Asians remain the only group excluded based on their race,” says Hong.

“The Chinese exclusion act,” a political cartoon from the San Francisco “Wasp,” 1904

In 1965, the impact of the African American-led Civil Rights Movement as well as the space race of the Cold War led Congress to pass the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which eliminated immigration quotas based on national origin, and also prioritized migration based on skills and family ties. The resulting rise of immigrants from Asia, especially those with advanced degrees and expertise in math and sciences, contribute to the model minority stereotype that is often attributed to Asian Americans today. Ironically, the model minority stereotype was also used to delegitimize African Americans’ call for racial equality.

Still, the prevalence of the stereotype has deep impact today. “The conception of Asian Americans as a model minority leads to the high degree of shame and silence around being undocumented,” says Anita Jain, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal Poly Pomona. Some see a cultural connection to silence. Ip assigns the reticence to a cultural value. “That’s Confucianism: To respect your elders and to respect people who have power,” he says in the LA Times. “Eventually, you will get your turn. But in America, we don’t know if we’re going to get our turn. We suffer silently for nothing.”

Alhambra, a city that is at least 50 percent Asian, ranks as above average among neighborhoods in Los Angeles for residents who have 4-year degrees, yet not all Asians are driving Lexuses and Mercedes. The city’s restaurants, massage parlors, nail salons, or grocery stores are all staffed by low-wage immigrant Asian workers, perhaps some of them undocumented.

Betty Hung, attorney and long-time immigrant rights activist, confirms the dominance of silence in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, despite the fact that these communities are also experiencing deportation and detention.

Hung lists actions folks can participate in, like donating to organizations that work specifically on undocumented issues, and to show public support like attending a vigil or rally. In terms of language, not using the “I” word: “illegal,” which dehumanizes people. On the federal level, Hung says to demand Congressional representatives to pass a standalone clean DREAM Act that does not criminalize immigration and contains no harsh deportation measures.

“We have a moral imperative to generate visibility, awareness, and support for the undocumented members of our community,” she says.

Karin Mak is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to the US as a result of the 1965 Immigration Act. She works in higher education and teaches in the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies at the Claremont Colleges.

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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