Testimony of L. Sookyung Oh
Korean Americans for Just Immigration Reform
Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee Hearing
Wednesday July 27, 2006
National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA
Good afternoon and thank you to the members of the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee for the opportunity to speak today on issues relating to immigration and immigrants in Pennsylvania. I hope that my testimony on behalf of Korean Americans for Just Immigration Reform (hereafter referred to as “KAJIR”) will shed light on the concerns of the Korean American community in the greater Philadelphia area on the direction and recent actions of the Pennsylvania state government.
KAJIR is an ad-hoc community committee formed in May 2006 in face of the rising level of anti-immigrant sentiment and to formulate an organized response to the corresponding rising level of immigrant community empowerment and civic participation. Member organizations and individuals reflect the many faces and voices in our community â€“ business, faith, civic, social service, and recreational – including the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia, Council of Korean Churches of Greater Philadelphia, Korean American Green Grocers’ Organization, Korean American Soccer Association, Korean Alliance for Peace & Justice, Jaisohn Center, the Delaware County Korean American Catholic community, and others.
I speak to you as the descendant of Korean immigrants and as an active member of Philadelphia’s large Korean American community in Philadelphia. I serve on the board of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) and am actively involved with the Day Without an Immigrant Coalition and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC).
Brief Profile of Korean Americans
Korean Americans are a minority population that number more than 1.2 million according to the 2000 Census. More than 70% or 865,000 are foreign born. In Pennsylvania, Korean Americans make up 14% of the total Asian Pacific Islander population. According to NAKASEC research, there are about 190,000 undocumented Korean Americans in the United States â€“ or 1 out of 5 Korean Americans are undocumented. In the last 10 years, the Korean undocumented population has more than doubled.
This rise of the undocumented among our community is due to limited channels for legal immigration.In 2002, 56% of Korean arrivals were sponsored by their families. 77,000 Koreans out of 1.5 million Asian Pacific Islanders are caught in the family immigration backlog that exists because of low annual quotas and processing delays that plague our legal immigration system.
Koreans have had great success as entrepreneurs across the region, concentrating primarily on small-scale retail. It is estimated that one-third of Korean Americans in the United States own their own businesses and have the highest rate of business ownership of any group.
As a community, Korean Americans, documented or undocumented, do not enter the country to commit criminal offenses or to drain public coffers. We come here to be with our families and to work, and in doing so, have better lives and contribute economically, socially, and culturally to this nation.
We understand that the Pennsylvania House has already passed a bill that declares English the official language of the Commonwealth, and is considering a wide range of other bills which would prohibit the provision of public benefits for undocumented immigrants, punish employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and several other measures.
English-Plus, rather than English-Only
English-only proposals are based on 2 suspect arguments: the first, that translation of government documents is burdensome and expensive; and the second, that new immigrants are not and do not want to learn the English language.These arguments do not have a solid factual foundation. GAO studies have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Government documents are printed in English only.In fact, only about 200 – or less than 1% – of U.S. Government documents are published in a language other than English.
We know that there is a strong desire to learn English in the Korean American community, as well as in other immigration communities.Social service agencies like the Jaisohn Center and numerous churches, offer free English-as-a-Second Language evening and weekend classes due to the incredible demand in the Korean American community. Over time, most immigrants learn sufficient English for day-to-day interactions, although it can be difficult for older individuals to learn a new language.Descendants of immigrants are raised with full knowledge of English.
However, newer immigrants often need additional help to learn the language to full proficiency, and may not understand more technical and legalistic language. 72% of Korean Americans who are 25 years or older speak or read English “not well.” Moreover, in the major cities that Korean Americans reside, the level of linguistic isolation that has been documented is considerable — ranging from 35% to 42%. Linguistic isolation means that in a given household all family members over the age of 14 years have some difficulty with the English language.
We are concerned that English-only legislation will undermine effective health care services, and may impede real education and safety, creating an environment where discrimination due to national origin cannot be defended.
Why not pursue an English-Plus strategy? Instead of committing resources to pursue and defend English-only, articulate American values of inclusiveness and democracy to support ESL classes and bilingual education in our schools.
State and Local Governments Response â€“ Complete, not Redundant
In the last few weeks of session, legislation was introduced to prohibit the expenditure of any public money to benefit undocumented immigrants with the exception of emergency medical care provision and for law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration or related offenses. Additional legislation seeks to charge employers with a third-degree felony if they knowingly and intentionally hire an undocumented immigrant (referred to as “an illegal” by Rep. Metcalfe).
These pieces of legislation, and several other similar bills, are ill-advised, ranging from redundant to pre-empted by federal law. Currently under federal provisions, undocumented immigrants cannot access publicly funded benefits, such as Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, PACE, or food stamps. According to a 2005 study by Physicians for a National Health Program, immigrants, including the undocumented, use fewer health care resources than native-born citizens. Nationally, 52% of Korean Americans do not have health insurance. Immigrants accounted for 10.4% of the U.S. population, but only 7.9% of total health spending, and only 8% of government health spending. Their per capita expenditure is less than half that of non-immigrants.
The Center for Studying Health System Change recently reported “[d]espite common perceptions that high rates of uninsured and immigrant residents contribute to higher ED [emergency department] use, communities with the highest levels of ED use generally did not have the highest numbers of uninsured, low-income, racial/ethnic minorities or immigrant residents. For example, Cleveland—where ED use was high—had low rates of uninsured and noncitizen residents, with 7.9 percent uninsured and 3.2 percent noncitizens. In contrast, Orange County—where ED use was low-had high rates of uninsured and immigrant residents, with 18.2 percent uninsured and 15.6 percent noncitizens.”
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) already prohibits all employers from knowingly hiring individuals who are not authorized to work in the United States. Another consequence of the belief that penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers is redundant; other cities have attempted to enact or enforce similar state laws only to find that federal law preempts them, such as in Lake Worth, Florida.
Lastly, we in the Korean American community are afraid that they will be asked to provide additional documentation proving they are authorized to work, which could violate federal anti-discrimination laws, or that they will not be hired because they look and/or sound “foreign born.” This then exposes employers to liability under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Instead, the solution should not be to discriminate against immigrants, but to work to protect ALL worker rights. This would insure that employers do not have incentives to hire new, migrant, and temporary workers because they are easier to exploit. As explained in a PICC document, “[a]s long as employers know they will not be liable for violating state and federal labor laws, they continue to have an economic incentive to recruit, hire, and exploit undocumented workers.Without stronger enforcement, â€˜bad apple’ employers have an unfair economic advantage over those employers that do play by the rules.This underlying problem must be addressed.”
This nation is at a critical time where people are realizing that immigration has to be addressed. Immigration is broken â€“ families are being torn apart and working people are punished for working. The task on hand is to champion just and humane laws. That’s the choice that you have. Do you want to unite Americans together for real solutions? We encourage our state legislators to urge their federal colleagues to pass meaningful immigration reform.In the meantime, there are appropriate actions that could be taken at the state level, such as enforcing existing safety, wage and hour laws, and increasing the minimum wage to better serve all Pennsylvania workers.
KAJIR will continue to monitor legislative activity. In the meantime, we are preparing to do legislative visits to District offices of federal Representatives. I also invite you and your colleagues to join us during the weekend of August 19-20 while KAJIR does outreach in front of Korean supermarkets to collect stories and signatures as part of a national “Picture Postcard Campaign.”
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share the thoughts and experiences of the Korean American community.