Asians Step On Participation on Immigration Debate
Nation’s Second-Largest Undocumented Group Is Speaking With a Louder Voice on the Issue
Emily Berl for The Wall Street Journal
Michelle Yoon, 21, who came to the U.S. in 2001, is active in an undocumented-students group at the University of California, Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES—UCLA senior Michelle Yoon was a high-school valedictorian and the first in her family to attend a four-year college. The daughter of South Koreans, she is also an illegal immigrant.
Ms. Yoon is one of the roughly 1.3 million undocumented Asian immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the second-largest group after Hispanics, at 8.3 million, to be in the country illegally.
Despite their relatively large numbers, undocumented Asians have traditionally kept a low profile in the debate over immigration policy. But as Congress considers creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Asians are becoming more vocal on the issue, much as their more conspicuous Hispanic counterparts have for years.
On Wednesday, a group of Asians said they would kick off a national tour to raise the “Asian collective voice” for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. During stops in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and six other cities, the immigrants will meet with community leaders and visit local congressional offices.
“Asians are not only more present, they are also playing an important role,” said Gaby Pacheco, an activist and director of Bridge Project, a national undocumented-immigrant group.
Ms. Pacheco said a few vocal Asians have been instrumental in emboldening others to speak out. Jose Antonio Vargas, a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team when he worked as a Washington Post reporter, was born in the Philippines. He was among the first to raise the issue, disclosing in 2011 that he himself was in the country illegally.
At University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Vargas recently urged a gathering of undocumented students to speak out. “The community has to get rid of that shame,” said Mr. Vargas, 32 years old, who was sent to California to live with his grandparents when he was 12 and realized he was in the U.S. illegally only when he applied for a driver’s license four years later.
Undocumented Asian students face similar challenges to Latinos in the same situation. They often must forgo undergraduate studies at prestigious universities as they can’t secure federal or state aid. They live in fear a parent could be deported if caught driving without a license or using a fake Social Security number.
“The myth of the model minority is that we Asians are high achievers, we shouldn’t advertise we’re undocumented,” said Hong Mei Pang, 24, an activist born in Singapore and raised in Baltimore. “It’s time to talk about it in the community and to increase our visibility,” said Ms. Pang, who attended The New School in New York City.
Ms. Pang and other Asians in recent months have lobbied in New York and New Jersey legislatures for laws to allow undocumented youth to qualify for drivers licenses and student financial aid. They have gone to Washington, D.C., for national rallies, and met with California Democratic Congressman Mike Honda and aides to Democratic New York Senators Kristin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, known for their interest in immigration.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program introduced last year that gives temporary protection from deportation and a work permit to those brought to the U.S. as children, has also helped undocumented Asians feel comfortable coming out of the shadows, activists say.
After applying for deferred action, Luke Hwang joined a new undocumented-student group, Revolutionizing Asian Immigrant Stories on the East Coast. Mr. Hwang, who came to the U.S. from South Korea at age 12, figures he was probably the only undocumented student at his New Jersey high school. “I only told my closest friends that I didn’t have papers,” said the 22-year-old, who is about to start a Ph.D at the University of Chicago. Today, Mr. Hwang believes, “Asians have to be a part of the immigration discussion. It’s not just a Hispanic issue.”
While most Hispanic undocumented immigrants crossed the border illegally, Asians typically arrived by plane on a tourist visa that later expired. Ms. Yoon, 21, came to Los Angeles in 2001 from Argentina, where her parents settled and she was born. Her mother, the family’s main breadwinner, is a store attendant. Ms. Yoon cobbled together private scholarships to enroll at UCLA, where she is active in an undocumented-students group called ASPIRE.
“My friends are all studying abroad while I’m stuck here,” she said. She could be barred from re-entering the U.S. if she left. “I can’t wait until I am a legal immigrant so that I can see the world.”
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A version of this article appeared July 31, 2013, on page A5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Asians Find a Voice on Immigration.