By Nicole Montojo
TNT, or “tago ng tago.” That’s what many Filipino Americans call their undocumented Pinoy brothers and sisters. Loosely translated, it means always hiding, or always on the run. As a young Filipina growing up in a white American suburb, I heard my parents and relatives use this term, always with a nervous laugh tainted with a hush-hush tone that suggested this was something taboo. Never understanding the gravity of what it means to be undocumented, all I knew was that TNT was something we definitely were not.
Those of us in the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community who are always on the run, watching our backs out of fear of immigration authorities, have hid ourselves all too well—not just from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but from our own communities. An arbitrary line divides AAPIs— the documented on one side and the “TNTs” on the other—a line made of nothing but a sheet of paper granting legal permanent residency. The material realities created by this line are stark; it grants the documented a multitude of basic rights: access to financial aid for education, healthcare, and fair-wage jobs to name a few. On the other hand, the undocumented are permanently disenfranchised; they have a different set of “rights” delineated by our broken immigration system—they can be exploited in the workplace, forced into constant fear of deportation, and have their family torn apart without a second glance from the government.
But the fact is that as AAPIs, we are all hidden if we do not stand up for immigration reform together; our silence on the issue only serves to reinforce the silence forced upon our undocumented community members. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) points out that AAPIs sponsor 39 percent of all family-based immigrants, and nearly half of the family members trapped by visa backlogs are relatives of AAPI immigrants. There is no separation between the documented and undocumented when our family, friends and community members must struggle silently. The line between us is a fiction, wholly unrelated to what our immigration stories are really about—a search for a better life for one’s family, refuge from any sort of persecution or war, and an unrelenting sense of possibility.
The reality lies in the stories of immigrants like Ju. Ju is a Korean American undocumented college student whose visa expired while he was in high school. “While my friends talked about colleges, I worried about whether or not I could even go to college. Despite all my hard work in high school, I didn’t have access to educational opportunities that most people take for granted.” He’s unable to work legally, obtain a driver’s license, receive financial aid for college, or live without fear of deportation. Nevertheless, Ju has not given up. “Today and every day, I fight for my rights,” he says.
As an AAPI community, we must recognize stories like Ju’s to see the reality beyond the fiction—the reality that his fight is our fight. We must stand up for the rights of all immigrants and new American families.
On March 21, nearly 100,000 students, family members, community leaders, and advocates will gather for the March for America in Washington D.C. to demand that President Obama and Congress work to pass immigration reform now to rebuild America’s economy and protect all families. Ju will be one of hundreds of AAPI community members that will call for a revival of the America that gives people hope and a democratic voice. If you are near the D.C. area, we hope you can join us on March 21st. For more information, visit nakasec.org.