Asian Americans’ stake in reform


When it comes to the issue of immigration, what quickly comes to American minds? Given that reporters repeatedly write about immigrants crossing the Mexican-U.S. border, the likely response: Hispanics. This focus, unfortunately, has devolved into deleterious scapegoating of immigrants from Central and South America. This is hardly a fair burden for Hispanics to carry, as immigration realities are much more diverse.

Reform will affect millions who emigrated from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, who come with a shared struggle, shared dreams and shared abilities to contribute to this country. Standing side by side, Hispanics are diverse minority groups who will be equally impacted by immigration reform, including Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs). As chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and as a Japanese-American born to migrant workers, I know firsthand the frustration felt by API immigrants. Our stake in the immigration debate is substantial, our concerns unique, the reasons many.

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The first two reasons have to do with proportionality. Among our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants, APIs are disproportionately represented, accounting for 12 percent — or 1.5 million — of all undocumented immigrants, despite the fact that APIs comprise only 5 percent of the population in the United States. Second, what is often ignored and equally disconcerting is that APIs sponsor 39 percent of all family-based immigrants, and nearly half of the family members in visa backlogs are relatives of APIs (which is why I authored Reuniting Families Act legislation to address unreasonably long waits). In both cases, APIs proportionally lead all minority groups despite trailing population percentages by 10 points, with Hispanics at 15 percent and African Americans at 14 percent.

Why the disproportionate numbers? Hard to know exactly, but with Asia accounting for six out of the top ten countries facing family immigration backlogs — the Philippines in the second-highest rank, China in fourth, India in fifth, Vietnam in sixth, Bangladesh in seventh, and Pakistan in tenth — we may find the answer. These rankings reflect emigration trends from the world’s most populous nations (India and China), as well as the consequences of congressional legislation which specifically allowed Filipino, Chinese and Indian people to become U.S. citizens, reversing decades of discrimination and spurring an influx of applications from these countries. This legislation may also explain why nearly two-thirds of all Asian and Pacific Islanders are foreign-born. The reversing of decades of discrimination meant that the emptying of Asia’s immigration queue happened quickly and within the last few decades, which may help explain the sluggishness in media reporting.

The story does not stop there. Another reason why APIs are primary players in immigration reform is that Asian countries are among the biggest recipients of remittance monies, much of which is channeled by American-based immigrants sending money home to families. India ranks highest in receipts, with remittances totaling $27 billion, followed immediately by China in second with $25.7 billion and the Philippines in fourth with $17 billion. Again, this reflects earlier points about these three countries ranking highest in terms of numbers of backlogged visa applications.

Asian nations are also the top recipients of America’s H-1B foreign worker visa and the accompanying H-4 visa, both of which are necessary for our technology workforce. A recent survey by Duke University shows that the largest group of immigrant non-citizen tech inventors was Chinese, with Indians second. Indians have founded more engineering and technology companies in the U.S. in the past decade than immigrants from the U.K., China, Taiwan and Japan combined. This should not belie that fact that many APIs also still struggle in low-skilled labor. In my Silicon Valley, which maintains the highest percentage of APIs of any congressional district, API ethnic subgroups struggle to graduate 50 percent of their young males from high school.

Other immigration-related obstacles seem uniquely Asian. The South Asian community bore the brunt of repressive immigration enforcement tactics and policies in the aftermath of 9/11. Sweeping detentions, deportations and lack of access to fair hearings were not uncommon experiences for South Asian immigrants. Additionally, among many API immigrant groups, integration into American society is uniquely difficult given language barriers. Ninety percent of Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians and Vietnamese do not speak English at home, with 79 percent of Asians speaking a language other than English at home. Lastly, API veterans — specifically Filipino veterans who fought for America in World War II — are uniquely burdened among immigrant groups as the veterans’ children continue to face decades-long waits for visas.

I say this as we approach comprehensive immigration reform, which if successfully embraced will add $1.5 trillion to our GDP over the next 10 years, according to a recent UCLA report. It is the approach I am most concerned about. For comprehensive immigration reform to be successful it must be inclusive, for we are in it together — no matter from which country we hail.

Honda is the chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.