Asians get more vocal in immigration debate
Updated 5/1/2006 11:06 PM ET
By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
In New York City’s Chinatown, Asian immigrants held hands and formed a “human chain” at 12:16 p.m. Monday to mark the day, Dec. 16, when the House of Representatives voted for a bill that
would make illegal immigrants felons.
In Philadelphia, Korean activists held a forum on immigration. In Los Angeles, they encouraged
employers to let workers take the day off to join a march down Wilshire Boulevard.
Latinos have been the face of recent immigration rallies, but Asians and Asian-Americans are
increasingly joining the protests or taking their own approach. They are speaking out on issues
such as reducing the wait times for visas for family members or green cards for skilled workers.
“This is a turning point for them. More Asians are joining into this larger civil rights movement,” says Pueng Vongs, an editor at New America Media, a consortium of ethnic news media.
“Our community has been fairly slow to mobilize, but we are definitely working together now,” says Daniel Huang, policy advocate for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. He says Spanish radio
stations helped Latinos organize quickly for rallies, but varying languages mean it’s harder to reach
Asians that way.
People of Asian ancestry were 13% of the 11.1 million undocumented population in a 2005
Census survey, says Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center. Four
countries — China, India, the Philippines and South Korea — account for most of them.
Korean-Americans have been among the most vocal Asians in the immigration debate, Huang says.
“We have a particularly large undocumented population,” says Eun Sook Lee, director of the National Korean-American Service and Education Consortium. She says 18% of the Korean population in
the USA is undocumented.
Vongs says Korean-American businesspeople, who hire substantial numbers of Latinos, are
concerned about penalties they could face as employers.
The Korean Apparel Manufacturers Association in Los Angeles sent a memo to its 1,000 members
urging them to allow workers to take Monday off.
“We don’t want this to be a racial issue,” says Mike Lee, the group’s president, noting that many
of the employers are Korean-American but the workers are Latino. Lee, a former U.S. Army officer who owns an apparel factory, joined a march Monday, as did all his Latino workers. Only a handful
of his Asian workers took the day off.
The Chinese community has been less active until recent weeks, Huang says, noting their large
turnout at rallies April 10.
“Chinese are sort of a quiet, conservative community,” says Cat Chao, host of the radio call-in
show Rush Hour on Chinese-language station KAZN in Los Angeles. She says when Latinos organized the initial protests, many of her callers admired their activism. Now, she says, many say the
activists have gone too far and call Monday’s boycott too “aggressive.”
Aman Kapoor, a software programmer from India at Florida State University, didn’t join the
boycott. His venue: the Web. Four months ago, he posted a message about his years-long,
ongoing wait for a green card, which documents an immigrant’s permanent legal residence in the
USA. He says 3,400 workers like him, who have H-1B visas to take “highly skilled” jobs employers
couldn’t otherwise fill, formed Immigration Voice. Most come from India or China.
“We don’t know the system here,” Kapoor says, explaining why the group hired the lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates. The firm is helping the group urge senators to expedite the green-card process and change rules so some applicants enduring a long wait could change jobs.
More than other immigrants, Asians tend to be well-educated, professionally employed and in the
USA legally, Passel says. About 10% of the Asian and Pacific-Islander population in the USA is
undocumented, compared with 19% of the Latino population, he says.
The difference in legal status helps explain why the Asian community is less concerned than Latinos about legalization, says Karin Wang, an attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
In a March poll of 800 legal immigrants by New America Media, 39% of Asian-Americans favored
deporting all illegal immigrants; 9% of Latinos supported the idea. Forty-seven percent of
Asian-Americans favored erecting a wall along sections of the U.S.-Mexican border; 7% of Latinos
Vongs says Asian immigrants are more concerned about human trafficking, the smuggling of
people into the country for forced labor, sexual exploitation or other illicit purposes. “The highest
number of people trafficked are Asian,” she says. “It’s primarily for the sex trade.”
Civil liberties is another issue, Huang says. He says the House bill would make some misdemeanors,
including drunken driving, a reason to deport someone. That could leave some people in U.S.
prisons indefinitely because some Asian countries — Vietnam, Laos and China — permit few
deportees to return.
Reuniting families is another concern of Asian-Americans. Huang says children or spouses of U.S.
citizens wait one to two years for a visa to the USA, but parents, siblings and other relatives wait
five to 12 years.
Asians get more vocal in immigration debate