As we approach and celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, it is a timely moment to re-commit ourselves to addressing the current struggles facing undocumented Asian American immigrants.
Looking back, APA heritage has always been shaped by our experience as immigrants and as workers fighting against unfair and difficult circumstances. Our nation’s earliest generations of Asian immigrants and workers were forced to struggle against anti-Asian and anti-immigrant laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 are just two examples of racist laws that sought to restrict Asian immigrants and separate Asian families.
Today, anti-immigrant practices and policies may appear distinct from explicitly anti-Asian laws of the past, but they are dangerous and discriminatory nonetheless. In fact, the challenges facing Asian Pacific American immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are growing and must be addressed with a vigor that comes from knowing our history.
Perhaps one of the most harmful misunderstandings is that Asian immigrants in the 21st century are mostly “high-skilled” employees who hold advanced degrees in science, math, and technology. This is yet another case of the model minority myth at work – hiding both the needs of our most vulnerable community members, while also marginalizing the hardships faced by other communities of color.
At Chinese for Affirmative Action, every day we hear from low-income and limited-English proficient immigrants who offer a very different picture from what is offered by the mainstream portraits of Asian immigrants.
In fact, of our country’s estimated 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, approximately 1.3 million are from Asia, with the largest number of undocumented Asians arriving from China, the Philippines, India, and Korea. Among immigrant youth often known as DREAMers—undocumented immigrants who were brought here as young children—1 in 10 are Asian American. The stories of these less visible immigrants need to be better understood, and more resources need to be made available to support them and their empowerment.
The experiences of undocumented Asian immigrants include those who have overstayed temporary visas and others who work without basic labor protections in the service industry. Many were brought to the United States as children, are the victims of human trafficking, and have fled war-torn and poverty-stricken countries devastated by American foreign policy.
But for all undocumented immigrants, including those of Asian descent, we have a moral obligation to change immigration and other public policy that is terrorizing families and denying fundamental human rights. No one should be forced to live in the shadows of society, vulnerable to workplace exploitation, lacking access to critical health and safety services, and in constant fear of deportation proceedings that would separate them from their family members.
And yet this is the situation created by today’s anti-immigrant practices: overzealous immigration enforcement, militarized border patrols, and unnecessary deportations of those who present no risk to our country’s security or safety. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including our fellow Asian Americans, suffer human rights abuses and violations at detention centers and do not have due process rights in overwhelmed immigration courts.
With respect to the treatment of Asian immigrant workers in the United States, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
There is so much to celebrate during APA Heritage Month in May, but celebrations will ring hollow if we fail to learn from our history. If we are to honor and respect the cultural, economic, and political contributions all Asian Americans have made to this country, we must prioritize the needs of the undocumented and most vulnerable among us.
Our long history of resistance against oppression calls upon us to keep up the struggle for immigration reform in Congress and action from the President to halt unnecessary deportations—especially this month.