For the first time in the nation’s history, Asian American and Pacific Islander groups came together this week to call for comprehensive immigration reform.
A dozen API organizations hosted activities in cities with high Asian American populations, including the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, D.C., the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles and national chapters of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
“Immigration is often Latino-focused,” said Tuyet Duong, senior staff attorney of Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), “but Asian Americans also want to activate their network and become involved.”
Although Latino immigrant rights groups have been more vocal about immigration concerns, the needs within the API community are just as urgent. The API community is one of the fastest growing immigrant populations, with more than 15 million Asian Americans living in the United States. Family reunification remains the most pressing issue for many Asian immigrants.
Duong noted that according to the Department of Homeland Security, 90 percent of green cards issued to Asian immigrants are through family-based immigration.
Due to the huge backlogs, these immigrants often face long wait times, with Indian immigrants waiting an average of 11 years and Filipinos 23 years to join their siblings in the United States according to the Asian American Justice Center.
“Asian Americans want family reunification as much as Latinos want legalization,” said Duong.
However, many Asian groups also tout the need for legalization of the 1.2 million undocumented Asian immigrants in this country.
“Since Obama took office, three dozen Vietnamese and Cambodians have been deported,” noted Bill Ong Hing, immigration law professor at the UC Davis School of Law.
Unlike Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans lacked a general consensus on legalization in the past, with some worrying that legalization would create further backlogs. This week, API immigrants are calling for immigration reform that would both speed up the backlogs and legalize the undocumented.
“In the Korean-American community alone, one in five is undocumented,” said Dae Joong Yoon, executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. “Many of them are under the age of 18.”
Michael, a 21-year-old undocumented Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong, who is currently studying computer engineering, said students like him would benefit greatly from the DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a path to citizenship.
Since age 5, Michael has spent two-thirds of his life in the United States without a Social Security number or work authorization. Though speaking in public posed a huge risk for him, Michael said, “I want to stop being afraid, I want to move on. Please pass a comprehensive immigration reform and give me and my brother a chance.”
Since President Obama’s announcement that immigration reform would most likely be delayed until 2010, API immigration experts have feared that further delays could hamper the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
“2010 is an election year,” explained Hing, who supports initiating the process in 2009 and passing it during early 2010. If immigration reform is delayed until early next year, Hing said, “attention will shy away [from immigration reform] in the House.”
Other Asian American activists advocate restoring the right to due process and fair hearings within the immigration justice system, in addition to ending prolonged immigration detention.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, the South Asian community bore the brunt of repressive immigration enforcement tactics and policies,” said Tamia Pervez, policy organizer of South Asian Network. “We need to stop sweeping detentions and deportations where immigrants are often without access to fair hearings.”
The nationwide collective effort reflects the API community’s increasing strength, population and political power. The Immigration Policy Center estimates that the number of API voters increased by 21.3 percent, from 2.8 million in 2004 to 3.4 million in 2008.
Between 2004 and 2008, Asian voters increased by 182 percent in Arizona, 216 percent in Virginia and 166 percent in Colorado, according to Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “The urgent need for reform is clear and politicians need to step up or face an increasingly frustrated electorate,” Noorani said during a national August 18 teleconference.
Newly elected Chinese-American Rep. Judy Chu (D-California) added that along with this growing electorate is an increasingly powerful economic base. “Immigration reform helps the economy,” said Chu, who recognized immigrant consumers as a crucial sector of the economy.
Reverend Vien Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American priest who provided assistance to immigrant groups after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, agreed. “New Orleans won’t be able to recover without [the help of] undocumented workers and employees,” Nguyen said.
In order to mobilize young Asian Americans to join the effort, the campaign organized a National Text-In Day. Young people showed their support by texting “AAPI” to 69866. Information and resources have also been posted on Asian American blogs.
API immigrant rights groups say this week’s series of collective actions is the beginning of a larger movement for immigration reform. Other groups, including labor, religious coalitions and other ethnic groups are expected to join in the effort in the fall.