By Mayu Takeda and Sanam Malik
With news that the president’s executive action to provide deferrals from deportation for undocumented immigrants will continue to be blocked and Congressional inaction on immigration reform a foregone conclusion, the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants, many of them parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, remains in limbo.
For many of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage (APIs), immigration reform may directly impact their lives. It is estimated that 16 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and two-thirds, or 66 percent, of those with Asian heritage in the U.S. were born abroad, the highest among any racial or ethnic group (by comparison, 37 percent of Latinos are foreign born, 8 percent for African Americans, and 8 percent for whites).
As academics, lawmakers, and the broader American public seek to further understand this diverse and fast growing group of people, it is important to orient that understanding around immigration, which has had a profound impact on the history of APIs in the United States.
From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and more recently, President Obama’s announcement and the subsequent suspensions of programs for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), the flow of migration of people to and from Asia and the Pacific Islands has been largely dependent on political winds and public opinion. However, as they gain political and electoral power, a growing number of APIs, particularly API youth, could, and should, soon demand action from policymakers.
API youth, many of whom are first and second generation immigrants with various language and cultural backgrounds, face numerous challenges. One of the challenges that affects their social and psychological well-being is that they are constantly labeled as the model minority, a large generalization which asserts that the majority of Asian and Pacific Islanders have already achieved the American Dream. Social media movements such as #ModelMinorityMutiny and #StartTheConversation aim to debunk this myth, encouraging the API community to stand in solidarity with other communities of color.
Furthermore, API youth face many cultural and language barriers, making them the least civically engaged group in the United States. Although the API community has the potential to hold strong electoral and political power, they are still the least politically engaged. One of the reasons is that both political parties find it hard to reach this community due to their diverse backgrounds and languages. In 2012, 8 percent of Asian-American voters didn’t vote due to their limited English proficiency.
Consequently, to increase voter turnout rate, API youth groups across the country have organized multilingual phone banks. For example, Advancing Justice-LA partnered with community groups, including 4 youth groups, to hold the nation’s largest multilingual and culturally-appropriate phone bank in 17 different languages through the “Your Vote Matters! 2014” campaign.
As API youth take the lead on organizing around language access and identity—in addition to other issues of social justice such as #Asians4BlackLives and pushing back against attempts to use API students as a wedge to dismantle affirmative action—there are signs that there is growing momentum for youth organizing within API communities. In addition, the API electorate—which has doubled between 2000 and 2012 from two million to 3.9 million—points to the expanding power that accompanies the increasing momentum of API youth organizing.
In his proclamation for the 2015 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, President Obama declared, “From the more than one million immigrants who journeyed across the Pacific and arrived on Angel Island to the Chinese American laborers who risked their lives to link our coasts by rail… AAPIs of all backgrounds have set inspiring examples as leaders and trailblazers, united by a common hope for civil rights, equal treatment, and a better tomorrow for all Americans.”
In the 50 years since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law, APIs have indeed played an integral role in advancing civil rights and equality, and the time has come for API youth to be heard on the crucial issue of immigration. With immigration reform stalled in Congress and the courts poised to undo the benefits of DACA and DAPA, API youth, who comprise over 10 percent of the 1.5 million DACA-eligible immigrants, have the opportunity to mobilize around the programs and demand a better immigration system. (end)