How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Asian-Americans become a more prominent voice in immigration debate

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Korean-American Drummers at a Los Angeles May Day immigration rally, May 1, 2013. Compared with the immigration debate of the mid-2000s, Asian-American groups have become a bigger force in immigration reform efforts.

During the last great immigration debate of the mid-2000s, it was mainly Latinos who were heard and seen pushing for an immigration overhaul. But things have changed. Take one single day this week in Los Angeles, when two Asian-American groups in different parts of town were speaking out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

At the Korean Resource Center in Koreatown, Dayne Lee and his colleagues were discussing a month-long phone effort to reach Korean-American voters.

"In the past, we’d be in coaltions or at rallies, and we’d be one of the only Asian-American faces in the room, or in the streets," said Lee, a civic engagement coordinator with the group. "I think what is happening now is that so many organizations are really making a push to get the word out to our community members."

Lee's coworkers and volunteers spent the past month working the phones, pushing Korean-American voters to ask their member of Congress to vote for comprehensive immigration reform.

On the same day, a few miles away in downtown L.A., an Asian-American civil rights group was kicking off a new campaign to help people start green card petitions for their adult married children and siblings, who stand to be cut off from immigrant visas under the immigration bill approved by the Senate.

Such issues have become a rallying point for many Asian-Americans, says Stewart Kwoh, who heads the L.A. office of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

"About 55 percent of Asian-American immigration into the United States has been due to family preferences," Kwoh said. "And so when we've seen the interest of a number of elected officials to cut family immigration in order to boost the numbers for skills-based immigration, Asian-Americans have really been outraged by that choice."

More young Asian-Americans who grew up in the U.S. without papers have been going public with their status, as have young Latinos and other activists. They include people such as Kevin Lee, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate. He grew up in the U.S. without legal status after his family arrived from South Korea and overstayed their visas.

"More Asian Americans are ... sort of recognizing that a lot is at stake here," Lee said. "It's not just the students, it's not just the  young folks, it's not just the parents, but it's everybody. It's our friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts."

Lee and seven other young Asian-Americans recently traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with lawmakers to share their stories. But even as Asian-Americans join Latinos and others pushing for an immigration overhaul, it's not clear how much influence their efforts will have, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist who studies immigration policy at UC Riverside.

"This immigration bill involves a lot of compromises," Ramakrishnan said. "And I think you have a realistic recognition among many groups that they may not be able to get some of the most important things they are pushing for, but that it's still important to push for it in the chance that it might work out."

Immigration from Asia recently surpassed new arrivals from Latin America, with Asians becoming the nation's fastest-growing racial group. If anything, Ramakrishnan says, the growing Asian-American presence in the immigration debate is helping reshape the present — and future — perception of who immigrants in the U.S. are.

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