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NAKASEC testifies in front of U.S. Helsinki Commission

By May 9, 2008No Comments

May 9, 2008

EunSook Lee testified at a Congressional Field Hearing for the U.S. Helsinki Commission, hosted by Rep. Hilda Solis, on May 9, 2008 focused on immigrant integration experiences, challenges and opportunities in Los Angeles. The U.S. Helsinki Commission is an independent government agency created in 1976 to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) commitments. The OSCE is the largest regional security organization in the world. It conducts a wide range of activities related to all three dimensions of security – the human, the politico-military, and economic-environmental.

Link to testimony:

Copy of testimony below:


EunSook Lee

Executive Director

National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC)

before the

U.S. Helsinki Commission

Field Hearing on Migration

“Los Angeles: The Regional Impacts and Opportunities of Migration”

May 9, 2008, 11:00am

California State University – Los Angeles

Representative Hilda Solis, Representative Hastings, and other members of the Commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak at this timely hearing. It is appropriate that a Congressional field hearing about immigrant integration is being held here in Los Angeles, a gateway city where a third of its county residents and nearly half of its workforce are immigrants and 55% of children are second-generation immigrants. If Los Angeles County were its own state, it would number the 9th largest state with an economy that eclipses many countries. I share this to keep in perspective the magnitude of the impact that can be achieved through smart and effective immigrant integration policies. What we do and how we look at integration in Los Angeles and California will serve as a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

Given that there are just over 399,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and little more than 96,000 Korean Americans in Los Angeles of which an estimated 75% are immigrants, the integration of immigrants is of specific interest to our communities. As the Executive Director of NAKASEC, a national consortium of community-based Korean American grassroots organizations, I come face-to-face with stories of the daily struggles our community faces to become fully integrated into American society. I know of both the successes and the challenges of how Los Angeles has sought to address the impact of migration.

The city and our nation must recognize that we have a social compact with immigrants. Immigrants work hard to create the tools and resources that strengthen our city and nation. In exchange, they should not be driven underground as second class citizens, but be able to take full advantage of those tools and be able to safeguard the health, education and progress of their families and participate fully in civic life. For the very future prosperity and security of America, it is incumbent of local governments and Congress to respond to migration by honoring and strengthening, and not neglecting this social compact.

The newly released report by the National Conference of States Legislatures found that in the first quarter of 2008, more than 1,100 bills of largely anti-immigrant bills have already been considered largely on the following five issues areas: Employment, Identification/driver’s license, Law Enforcement, Public Benefits and Services, and Education. What is encouraging is that that while there have been publicized activities by a vocal minority fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiments, few anti-immigrant measures have passed. Moreover, it is our belief that immigrant integration is the antidote to anti-immigrant measures and sentiments. Communities that hate or fear immigrants are those who have never had contact with them. Integration is essential to breaking that ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar and it is best done on the local level.

I will focus my comments today on the immigrant integration needs of AAPIs in the areas of education, health care, and political. First I will discuss education. Throughout Southern California we have worked with literally thousands of students and their parents to advocate for access to public education at K-12 and postsecondary institutions. These denials of admissions are primarily due to a misapplication of federal immigration laws or California state educational code which explicitly protects immigrant students’ rights to admission regardless of immigration status. Undocumented immigrant students particularly from Asia face the added barrier of being denied in-state tuition. Education is a chief determinant of an individual’s future success and quality of life s/he will be able to lead. Census data shows that a high school graduate will earn $1.2 million in a 40-year span, compared to $2.1 million for a person with a Bachelor’s degree, and $2.5 million for a person with a Master’s degree. Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, and for those who work, pay is low, advancement is limited and health insurance is less available. It is also beneficial to states — states who contribute significantly to elementary and secondary schools see net returns from marked decrease in income inequities and poverty rates to reduction in crime rates. Additional data on this can be provided.

It is also important to secure parental engagement in their children’s education and school activities. At the heart of the problem is the inability of schools to provide multi-lingual communications to immigrant parents other than Spanish speakers. We have cases of young Korean American kindergarten students waiting extra hours because their parents only received notices for early school out in English and Spanish. We also have cases of Korean American parents being forced to ask other bilingual parents that they do not know to interpret for them confidential information about their child during Parent’s Nights. As a result of a public school’s failure to provide language access, Limited English Proficient AAPI parents are disempowered from monitoring their children’s academic progress or having a voice in determining school policies. Too often, immigrant children or children of immigrant parents must navigate the education system on their own — some unsuccessfully. Provision of language access is part of the solution; the other part is increased funding for English as a Second Language and Civics classes for adults. Contrary to the myth that immigrants do not want to speak English, the experience of our Los Angeles affiliate, the Korean Resource Center which runs an English and Civics class in partnership with Los Angeles Community College, there is a long waiting list of immigrant parents willing to enroll in English classes after an 8 to 12 hour work day. Immigrant parents do not question the importance of learning English not only for work but also to remain a central part of their children’s lives.

On the issue of healthcare – nationally, one out of two Korean Americans lack health insurance. This is because of two primary reasons: high costs make coverage unaffordable and language barriers make coverage unusable. AAPI, particularly Korean American households in Southern California have the state’s highest levels of linguistic isolation. Quantitative and qualitative research shows that language barriers are associated with lower health education, poorer doctor-patient interaction, and lower patient satisfaction. These patients are less likely to receive counseling on proper diet, smoking cessation, and exercise habits. The immediate danger is that language barriers delay care, facilitate misdiagnoses and the wrong prescriptions can be dangerous for a patient’s well being. Sometimes, it’s fatal.

We have on record the story of a limited English proficient Korean American patient admitted to Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina suffering from kidney failure and diabetes. After a week stay, she began to feel better and the hospital made discharge plans. However, while attempting to go to the restroom without assistance, she fell off her bed and broke her right arm and hip, causing her to prolong her hospital stay. A few days later, she complained about pain, saying “apah,” which means “pain” in Korean. The hospital staff did not attempt to find an interpreter to understand her repeated comments of “apah.” Finally, they asked her LEP husband what “apah” means and from that period, the nurses would just ask, “Apah?” and give her painkillers. They never asked where the pain was located or the extremity. When the niece came to visit, she was shocked at her aunt’s treatment and questioned the hospital staff about patient communication and lack of interpreter services. Even after referring the hospital staff to PALS for Health, an organization that provides free medical interpretation, the hospital continued to ignore interpretation requests. The staff instead asked the niece to write down Korean words in English phonetics so that they might ask her aunt questions. When asked how they were going to understand the answers, they just brushed off the comments without reply. It was later discovered that the woman patient had an infection in her arm, which traveled up her shoulder. A week later, by the time the infection was detected, it had already entered her blood stream and it was too late to cure. With complications from kidney failure, diabetes and the new infection, the patient slipped into a coma and later passed away. The entire time patient simply said was, “I can’t speak English, but I should be thankful that they are treating me.”

Lastly, integration is not just socioeconomic but also political. A recent report by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees on the “Integration Potential of California’s Immigrants and Their Children,” found that nearly 93% of California’s AAPI children ages 12 – 17 have an immigrant parent. Moreover, the sum of all potential immigrant and their young-adult children could potentially make up 28.5% of all California voters by 2012. In short AAPI voters are referred to as the “sleeping giant,” who must be stirred in order to advocate for policies that impact their lives. While only 52% of AAPIs who are U.S. citizens over the age of 18 are registered, 85.2% of AAPI registered voters did vote. In other words, while AAPIs suffer from low voter registration rates, when registered, they promise healthy rates of consistent voter participation, particularly when appropriate and adequate resources and support are provided. In seeking to cultivate a sustained culture of civic engagement, we have a responsibility to facilitate their engagement through comprehensive voter empowerment activities that are bilingual and bicultural. What is particularly exciting is the work that many of us on this panel are a part of within our own organizations but also in coalitions regionally and nationally.

Unfortunately, rather than facilitating the political participation of immigrants, some state and federal governments may be making it more difficult for immigrants as naturalized citizens to fully participate. On April 28, 2008 the Supreme Court by 6-3 rejected a constitutional challenge to an Indiana law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting. This ruling is expected to open the doors for other states to move forward with wholesale voter disenfranchisement tactics against ethnic and language minority voters. According to the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University School of Law, as many as 11 percent of Americans – more than 21 million U.S. Citizens – do not have a current, government-issued photo ID. Elderly, poor and minority Americans are more likely to lack government-issued ID. Furthermore, Rock the Vote found in a recent poll that 19% of 18-29 year olds lack a government-issued photo ID and estimates that this ruling will disenfranchise 1 out of 5 youth voters. Voter fraud has been stated as the reason for this law; however there has been no evidence that voter fraud is even a prevalent problem in Indiana. The Supreme Court further stated that there was not one instance of voter fraud in Indiana. Photo ID laws claim to address non-existent problems while creating new ones such as creating a barrier to poor voters and voters of color who do not have government-issued photo ID.
In addition over one million legal permanent residents seeking to become U.S. citizens are now caught in the naturalization backlogs. There were significant increases in naturalization applications since 2006 which USCIS failed to anticipate or address. Following the substantial fee increase on July 30, 2007 which brought in close to half a million applications in the month of July alone, the expectation seemed to be that immigrants would be deterred by the rising fees from naturalizing. Instead, hundreds of thousands have continued to apply in spite of the fee increase. The processing time has increased from 7 months to 18 months and it is now estimated that half a million may not be processed before the November elections. These naturalization backlogs are a grave form of backdoor disenfranchisement. While Dr. Emilio Gonzalez, director of USCIS has resigned, it is not clear whether USCIS will begin to take serious action to enable immigrants to become full participants of American society.
Not only is it important for Congress to focus on the enactment of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that is a workable solution to the problems of our nation’s immigration system, but it must also work with local cities in focusing on key integration issues such as health care access, education and civic engagement. Taken as a whole, I urge the committee to consider the need for holistic approaches that promotes the full integration of immigrants. Like their fellow Americans, immigrants arrived to contribute to the greatness and strength of this nation and at the same time, expect that Los Angeles and America as the receiving city and nation will provide them with equitable and fair opportunities to build a better life for themselves, their children and their community. Thank you again for your attention and consideration.

NAKASEC or the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a national non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The centers sought to empower and improve the lives of Korean Americans as part of a greater goal of building a national movement for social change. NAKASEC is a multi-issue civil and human rights organization that is based within the Korean American community. We promote equitable changes to the political and legislative systems through a combination of education and policy advocacy with grassroots organizing and community mobilization.