Amy Lin was 12, when she and her mom left behind her abusive father and moved to California. Their new life was much better: Her mom worked as a nanny. Lin enjoyed school. Then Lin got old enough to drive and mentioned it to her mom.
“And she was like, you just can’t do it,” Lin recalled. “And she wouldn’t even tell me why.”
A few months later, Lin brought up college: “And then she finally sat me down and said, look at this, you’re undocumented. We can’t even afford for you to go to college.”
The two of them had overstayed their tourist visas, and her mom was unable to adjust their immigration status. It’s a common story among the estimated 1.3 million Asian immigrants living in the country illegally. More often than not, parents hide their situation from their children as long as they can, out of shame and embarrassment, advocates say.
“People just don’t talk about their immigration status or how they came to the US,” said Anthony Ng, an immigrant rights advocate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
But advocates say this reticence about illegal immigration is why Asians are less likely to seek help than other immigrants. Participation by Asians in the federal program that gives immigrants a reprieve from deportation is significantly lower than for Latinos.
Bypassing deportation relief
To apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, immigrants must meet meet certain age and educational requirements. Program-wide, more than half of those eligible have applied, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, with Mexicans applying at a rate of 62 percent. In comparison, just a quarter of eligible Koreans and Filipinos did.
Margie McHugh, director of the Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, said this could be due to stigma around lack of legal status in Asian cultures, combined with a sense that DACA is geared more toward Latinos.
“For example, since the vast majority of deportations are of Latinos, that might be why the population might not feel as urgent a need to come forward and apply,” McHugh said.
At the same time, immigration is much more widely-discussed among Latinos, who at 17 percent of the population are three times larger a group than Asians. Latinos comprise 76 percent of the estimated 1.2 million people eligible for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute, whereas Asians make up 10 percent.
“There is such a high degree of visibility of the DACA program in the Spanish-speaking media that it’s hard not to know about the program if you’re in that community,” McHugh said.
Legal advocate Tiffany Panlilio at Advancing Justice said when she’s tried to start informational clinics at local schools, Latino parents quickly jump on board.
"They say, yeah, we need a DACA clinic for our kids and we’ll provide the Spanish translations," Panlilio said. "But when it came to Asian parent leaders, they kind of gave us the vibe that's not our problem within our communities."
Panlilio said some Asian immigrants are holding out for comprehensive immigration reform. DACA requires participants to renew every two years and faces regular attacks by conservative Republicans, who see it as tantamount to amnesty. For some, DACA does not seem worth the risk of acknowledging their lack of immigration status.
"For Asians, we have to cross the whole Pacific Ocean," Panlilio said. "There’s no way (immigrants) would ever go back home, so why would they out their status?"
That leads to questions as to whether Asians will take advantage of DACA if it’s expanded. Within weeks, President Obama is expected to announce new immigration measures. Advocates are predicting he will defer deportations for potentially millions.
Tailoring the message
Unlike advocates who work predominantly with Latinos, advocates at Advancing Justice have to offer legal assistance in multiple Asian languages, and have created a range of videos explaining DACA for different nationalities.
The organization has also reached out to ethnic media, such as Chinese-language dailies Sing Tao and World Journal, because they could use the extra help.
China is the ninth biggest source of eligible applicants but does not even feature in the top 20 countries when it comes to application rates.
"Chinese families are typically conservative and holding onto family unity," said Lin, whose family is ethnically Chinese. "And something like DACA, which seemingly putting families in jeopardy, is not something that a lot of parents are willing to take."
In a departure from the norm in Chinese families, it was Lin’s mom who pushed her to join DACA, though it was a struggle to come up with $465 to apply. Lin was worried about exposing her mom’s legal status, and fought her on this front for months.
"But my mom is very courageous in that she thought that having some sort of document is still better than nothing," Lin said.
Lin now attends UCLA, paying in-state tuition as allowed for qualifying immigrants under state statute. She also advocates for other immigrants as part of Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education. It's her responsibility to speak out, she said, so that other immigrants, particularly Chinese, might see themselves reflected in her. Outside of Filipino activist Jose Antonio Vargas, there are few visible Asian spokespeople on immigration.
“It is important to find someone who speaks our language so that we are assured that they know where we’re coming from, they know what our fears are,” Lin said.