How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

More diversity among Asian Americans than meets the myth

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Patricia Nazario/KPCC

Victory Huey teaches the morning Citizenship Class at Evans Adult School in downtown Los Angeles near Chinatown. Eighty immigrants from all over the world are enrolled in the class.

Many observers regard Asian Americans as the nation's most successful immigrants. But a new report details how the nation's fastest-growing racial group is far more diverse a population, socioeconomically and otherwise, than “model minority” myths might indicate.

The stereotype of a generally well-educated, well-paid group doesn’t play out in the report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a civil rights and legal organization in Los Angeles. 

While some Asian American groups in Southern California do earn more than non-Latino whites, the study also found that some groups, such as Cambodians, Bangladeshis and Tongans, tend to earn less than blacks and Latinos. And Korean Americans in the region, for example, are as just as likely as Latinos to lack medical insurance.

“There is this myth that is prevalent that Asian American communities and Pacific Islander communities are uniformly successful," said Dan Ichinose, the legal center's demographic research director. "But when we look at the data, that is just not the case."

The report reviewed census and other data on Asian Americans in California to reveal wide disparities in education, health care access, income and more.

"It’s really quite dangerous to lump everyone together into a single group without understanding the needs of these communities, because the needs of those communities will go unaddressed," Ichinose said.

Immigration also matters a great deal to a cohort that benefited from federal changes in national origin quotas fewer than 50 years ago.

Immigrant visa backlogs are a problem for Asian American families trying to sponsor immigrant relatives; for some hopeful immigrants in the Philippines, for example, waiting to enter legally can exceed 20 years. 

As many as 1.3 million Asian immigrants in the United States may be undocumented. Many of them don't want to talk about it, said Catherine Eusebio, a recent college graduate and immigrant activist who arrived from the Philippines as a young child. Her family remained without legal status after their temporary visas expired.

“I think that in the Asian American community, it has traditionally been a source of shame to be different from the overall stereotype of what it means to be successful in America," Eusebio said. "I think now is the time to come out...If we stay silent, then members of our community are continuously being deported every day.”

Asian immigration to California recently outpaced that from Latin America. The study’s authors conclude that Asian Americans stand to become an even greater part of the state’s cultural and political fabric. 

Read the entire report here.

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