It’s inevitable, especially here in Southern California, that when one thinks about immigration reform and the undocumented, one hears Latino voices.
In fact, it was President Obama’s promise to fix the nation's immigration system that helped him win 71 percent of the Latino vote and a second term in the White House. Republicans have taken note and recently stepped up with their own proposals: ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush joined the fray earlier this week with a book that includes his own immigration reform proposals.
Many observers on Capitol Hill believe that after the sequestration showdown, the White House and Congress will actually make an effort to compromise and pass immigration reform laws this year. And among the voices wanting to make themselves heard in the immigration debate are some who are definitely not speaking Spanish.
The variety of those voices can be heard at the downtown L.A. headquarters of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC). Inside their offices, a multitude of languages are spoken: Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Khmer, Thai, Hindi, Punjabi. It’s a long list that reflects the changing demographics of the L.A. area.
“Between 2000 and 2010, more Asian-Americans became legal permanent residents in California than people from any other ethnic group," says Betty Hung, APALC’s policy director. "More than folks from Mexico. And there are more immigrants coming from Asia to California than from anywhere else in the world.”
California has a long history of Asian immigration, starting with the Chinese who first arrived during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. Today, there are about 5 million Asians in California – and APALC is on a mission to make sure their varied voices are heard.
“We have huge stakes in this debate,” Hung says. "Millions of our families are affected and that’s why the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is mobilizing to lift up our voices and ensure that our family’s concerns and needs are also reflected in an immigration reform bill.”
Hung points out that of the estimated 11 million undocumented individuals in the U.S., about 1.3 million are Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders – and almost one-third of those live here in the L.A. area.
Last week, Asian-American organizations launched a nationwide campaign pushing for a change in immigration laws. The campaign centers on a petition asking Congress for immigration reform that includes a path to legalization. That’s also something Latinos have been calling for, but Hung emphasizes that, for Asian-Americans, reuniting families is also a top priority.
“There are almost 2 million Asians who are waiting in backlogs, waiting in line for their family visas to be processed, so millions of families also are separated," Hung says. "These backlogs can last as long as 23 years for countries such as the Philippines. And actually four of the five countries with the longest backlogs are in Asia. That’s China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, in addition to Mexico.”
Another area of concern for Asian-Americans is the so-called “96 law,” a bill signed in 1996 by President Clinton making it easier to deport individuals who have committed minor crimes. According to Hung, the change took away the ability of judges to consider factors such as family ties and rehabilitation in deportation proceedings.
Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders in particular have been particularly hard hit by the change: they’re deported at a rate three times higher than immigrants as a whole.
Connie Choi, an attorney at APALC, has represented a number of Asian immigrants here in L.A. whose lives have been upended by this change. She says an immigrant’s minor offense can come back to haunt them as long as 20 years later.
“People who had gotten involved as youth committing minor offenses, who had families, who had children that are U.S. citizens that were born here, were suddenly getting picked up and placed into deportation proceedings,” Choi says.
The other issue that has many in the Asian community concerned is the failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a reform that would allow undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal status.
Anthony Ng, 23, falls into that category. He comes from the Philippines, which places him in the largest ethnic group of Asian-Americans here in L.A. He didn’t realize he was here illegally until the 10th grade. Undocumented was a new term for him.
“I didn’t even know what it meant,” Ng says. “I mean, there’s a term in Tagalog called 't and t,' which means 'tago and tago,' which is 'hide and hide,' 'cause you’re hiding from [immigration agents], or from being deported.”
Ng did manage to graduate from high school and UC Irvine. He’s now a member of Dream Team LA, a group that's advocating for passage of the DREAM Act. For the moment, Ng doesn’t have to worry about deportation: a deferred action policy was put in place last year by the Obama administration, essentially freezing deportation in cases like his.
Ng is optimistic, and not just about the DREAM Act’s chances. He believes politicians will actually tackle immigration reform.
“It’s something they want to fix this time around, given that they know the consequences of it if they don’t fix it,” he says. “We know the power of our community as a whole. We know that we can mobilize our community to register voters and to make sure they vote for a candidate that really reflect our needs.”
Betty Hung is also optimistic about comprehensive reform. She believes there’s a real chance Congress is starting to listen. And now they’re hearing more than just Latino voices.
“We are mobilizing our community alongside other immigrant communities, and partners like labor, to make sure that an immigration bill is passed and signed,” Hung says. “But not just any bill, but a bill that really offers a path to citizenship as well as clears out the backlogs and reunites families.”
The hope is, of course, that politicians in Washington are more inclined to make a deal on immigration than they were on sequestration.
This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Khmer and the number of Asians in California.