Asian Americans, We Must Stand Strong with our Undocumented Immigrants | #MyAsianAmericanStory

The falsified documents of a Chinese American so-called "paper son".
The naturalization papers of a Chinese American immigrant.

Whether it is Donald Trump’s verbal caricature of overseas Chinese businessmen, or Jeb Bush’s proclamation that when it comes to “anchor babies” the issue is “more related to Asian[s]”, or Carly Fiorina’s lamentations over the “industry” of Chinese women having babies in the United States, one thing has become clear: the Right-wing of American politics is now firmly entrenched in a platform of anti-immigrant nativism filtered through the lens of sinophobia. Much of that xenophobic rhetoric comes in the form of railing against undocumented immigrants, whom Trump characterized in his campaign announcement speech as “criminals”, “rapists” and “murderers”.

Two thirds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are foreign-born according to the Center for American Progress’ State of Asian America report released last year, and 40% of America’s immigrants currently call an Asian country the place of their birth. Of those approximately 10 million foreign-born AAPIs, 1.3 million (or 1 in every 8) are undocumented immigrants. These numbers also suggest that currently, approximately 1 in every 9 undocumented immigrants is AAPI.  Those numbers are on the rise: over the last decade, the overall Asian undocumented population has doubled, with the undocumented population originating from India, South Korea and China having grown by as much as 300%.  Considered alongside evidence showing that undocumented immigration from Mexico has slowed in recent years, Asian Americans are now the fastest growing undocumented population in America leaving one National Journal reporter to suggest that “someone tell Don­ald Trump that he’s pick­ing on the wrong im­mig­rants.”


These demographics would suggest that AAPIs should have a strong political interest in supporting undocumented immigrants: many AAPIs are undocumented, and many undocumented are AAPI. As demonstrated by the 2016 Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, anti-immigrant race-baiting can quickly take on anti-Asian overtones. As the National Journal presciently warned, today’s nativism will increasingly “pick on” the AAPI community.

Yet, surveys of Asian American political opinion suggest that our community is surprisingly intolerant of undocumented immigrants, even though 2012 exit polling showed that less than 15% of Asian American voters cite immigration as a top issue at the ballot box. A 1996 AsianWeek survey — summarized in Linda Trinh Vo and Rick Bonus’  book “Contemporary Asian American Communities: Intersections and Divergences” — found that two decades ago nearly 70% of Asian American respondents supported harsh penalties against companies that hire undocumented workers. 60% also opposed social services for undocumented immigrants, while an astounding 30% of respondents actually supported a temporary ban halting all immigration into America.

In 2008, a smaller majority of AAPI respondents expressed opposition to a pathway to citizenship — a policy proscription often characterized as amnesty for undocumented immigrants — in the expansive National Asian American Survey (46% disapproval vs. 32% approval, with 22% undecided or neutral on the issue).


Update:  More recent data collected in the 2012 NAAS shows that anti-undocumented immigrant intolerance among AAPIs is waning. In the updated survey results, 58% of AAPI respondents expressed support for a pathway to citizenship, compared to 26% opposed and 16% uncertain. Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan suggests that the four-year shift in attitudes may have arisen as a combined result of increased voter education and a Left-ward ideological shift. (Many thanks to Karthick and the researchers at NAAS for notifying me of the 2012 findings so that this post could be updated).

Vo and Bonus suggest that the persistence of AAPI intolerance towards undocumented immigrants among some may be based on disparate opinions in how “legal” immigrants vs. so-called “illegal” immigrants should be treated: respondents likely felt that documented immigrants should receive expanded protections and access through comprehensive immigration reform, whereas undocumented immigrants should be harshly punished.

Delving deeper into this phenomenon, however, reveals more fascinating insights: this stark division between the perception of documented and undocumented immigrants may be endemic specifically among AAPI voters who fail to perceive undocumented immigrants (even when AAPI) as part of one’s own racial or ethnic tribe. A recent paper published by Frank L. Samson in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies analysed NAAS data in greater detail, and found a strong correlation between opposition to a pathway to citizenship and an AAPI voter’s perceived political commonality with Whites vs Black or Brown voters. From Samson’s abstract:

Ordinal logistic regressions reveal that higher levels of perceived political commonality with Latinos relate to increased support for the provision of a citizenship path. Similarly, higher perceived political commonality with blacks is positively related to support for a citizenship pathway, suggesting that a civil rights frame, rather than a group competition frame, links immigration reform and black political interests in the minds of Asian Americans. On the other hand, higher levels of perceived political commonality with whites relate to increased opposition to such a pathway.

In other words, AAPI voters who view themselves as more politically connected to Whites — whether aspirationally or actually — are less likely to support undocumented immigrants.

Yet, these AAPI voters’ framing of immigration as separate issues when concerning documented vs. undocumented immigrants ignores the fact that neither in AAPI history nor in contemporary American politics has such a distinction ever been politically obvious; at its core, nativism is a racial fear of the Other that simply does not discern legal status. This is no more evident than in AAPI’s own historic relationship with nativist sentiment: since the late 1800’s, anti-immigrant sentiment grounded in fears of an increasingly competitive foreign-born labour force was expressed through anti-Asian racism regardless of an immigrant’s legal status, even though between 1906 and the 1940’s, thousands of “illegal immigrant” Chinese Americans entered the country as so-called “paper sons”. Thirty years earlier, when notorious anti-Chinese union leader Dennis Kearney railed against Chinese immigrants, he did not reserve his declaration that “bullets would replace ballots” for those who might have arrived without proper authorization.

We cannot afford to be distracted by today’s apparent focus on comprehensive immigration reform through the guise of the undocumented immigration issue: today’s nativism may be less conspicuously racist, but it is still racist nonetheless. When Jeb Bush places national attention on the “problem” of Asian “anchor babies”, he is whipping up nativist Yellow Peril fears against a population of legal tourists. When Republican candidate Governor Scott Walker suggests we build a US-Mexico border wall, he suggests a plan that would treat all Mexicans regardless of legal status as threatening. When Republican candidate Governor Bobby Jindal declares that “immigration without assimilation is invasion“, he does not distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants. When nativists decry immigrants, they reinforce a framework of “us” vs. “them”, and the boundaries of that “us” vs. “them” framing has always been drawn along racial (not legal status) lines.

At this point, it is worth emphasizing: conservative nativism isn’t more racist when it spills over onto the AAPI community. Anti-Latinx xenophobia is just as unforgivably racist as anti-Asian hysteria and sinophobia. When voters view America as comprised of distinct tribes — “those (implicitly White) citizens who belong” and “those (implicitly non-White) foreigners” — that oppositional and stereotype-laden framework is one that rationalizes intolerance towards people of colour regardless of race, ethnicity, or country of birth. When a framework that view some people as less authentic than others is built on racialization of the Other, it is the humanity of all people of colour that is consequently denied. When America treats immigrants with suspicion and intolerance, it is all people of colour who have found ourselves unwelcome.

As compiled in the trending #MyAsianAmericanStory hashtag, AAPIs express near unanimous identification with the narrative of the “immigrant struggle”. Many of us are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Many of us can proudly recount an oral familial history of an ancestor’s immigrant experience. It would be safe to say that most AAPI can empathize with the general idea of an immigrant.

It is senseless that for some this empathy for immigrants evaporates when it comes to consideration of the struggles of undocumented (and/or non-Asian) immigrant communities. It is also senseless that we routinely forget the many AAPIs are undocumented immigrants. Like documented immigrants, most undocumented immigrants are hard-working people who come to America seeking to build greater opportunity for their family. Like documented immigrants, many are focused on the struggle of navigating a new country and a tangled immigration system as best they can. Like documented immigrants, many are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who have committed to a lifelong sacrifice in the hopes that they will one day benefit their family. Like documented immigrants, many are economic or political refugees escaping the depressed conditions of their country of birth on the chance that their children can grow up under better conditions. Like documented immigrants, many undocumented immigrants are just seeking a safe place for their children.

Frankly, all AAPI should be able to relate to the struggles of immigrants regardless of their legal status. We must also do better than merely wading into American politics in a tribal fashion, wherein we limit our advocacy only to transient moments when AAPIs are explicitly named. Instead, we must see the fundamental connections between our community’s politics and the issues of other communities of colour, and we must speak out against those injustices in a more intersectional fashion. Given AAPIs’ historically intimate connection to the immigration issue — and in particular the relative economic and political benefits many of us now enjoy specifically because of the work of undocumented and documented immigrants to strengthen our community — we have a moral responsibility to prioritize, advocate for, and vote in support of our nation’s immigrants, regardless of race or ethnicity.

We must never forget that our Asian American story is one written with chapters that document the immigrant struggle. We must never forget that the pages of those chapters are stained with the blood of immigrants brutalized in the name of American nativism that expresses racial hate without distinction for ethnicity or legal status. We must now recognize that a similar brand of anti-immigrant nativism still persists nearly two centuries later, and it still views us and other people of colour as unwelcome.

We pride ourselves on being a community of successful immigrants; that pride must also come with a more committed advocacy for the rights of (all) immigrants. The fight to defend today’s immigrants — documented or undocumented — must matter to us. It must be our fight, too.

Spoken word by Jason Chu (@jasonchumusic), directed by Ben To (@benjitoes).

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  • 1maybeso

    Nope. We, as a country, have legal immigration. We do not need illegal immigration. We also have 320 million people. We are good on population. We do not owe foreign nationals anything. To demand that I owe an illegal immigrant my support for his crime, simply because we are both part of the same “race,” is racist. If America wants a truly racially integrated society, it will frequently require putting laws above race.

  • Holy crap dude, this post has been up like 15 minutes. I haven’t even finished doing social media pushes yet. Is this blog your homepage or something?

  • 1maybeso

    Is your response relevant to the topic, or a passive aggressive ad hominem arrack? You wrote the forum policies, you should also be the standard bearer.

  • No, it was a remark about how fast you commented. How is it an ad hominem attack? I’m literally still fixing typos on this post. I am asking how you found it and read it this fast because it’s just now starting to be shared on social media (which is how the vast majority of my reader are notified of new post), and people don’t use blog readers anymore. I literally am confounded by this and genuinely asking how you stay abreast of new posts on this site since your turnaround indicates you are an outlier with regard to how people monitor my writing.

    My response to your comment — which doesn’t really address anything particular within the post — is found within the post itself.

    When a framework that view some people as less authentic than others is built on racialization of the Other, it is the humanity of all people of colour that is consequently denied. When America treats immigrants with suspicion and intolerance, it is all people of colour who have found ourselves unwelcome.

    Basically, your framing ignores basic tenets of structural racism: when you allow for an Us (documented) vs. Them (undocumented) framework, you ignore both our history of documented and undocumented immigrants as AAPI, and you deny the simple fact that the nativism you espouse is broadly used to justify anti-Asian racism regardless of immigration legal status. Furthermore, this being the basic thesis of the post, I find it suspicious that you failed to address that in your original comment. Instead, you posted a rather generic comment that echoes the exact same sentiment you’ve posted elsewhere (and in much the same language) which leads me to ask you to respond more specifically to the ideas found within this post.

    Specifically, do you really believe that the anti-Asian and Sinophobic currently being used by the anti-immigrant Right has no impact on how you as an Asian American are perceived and racialized?

    Addendum: nowhere does this post argue that we owe advocacy for undocumented immigrants because we share a race. I am not making a nationalist argument. I am making the argument that racial justice and immigrant justice transcends both racial and legal status lines. If a person opposes racism, they should oppose racism in all its forms.

  • James Hill

    Governer Haley gave a speech this week in which she addressed several hot button issues including immigration. She said we can praise the contributions and support legal immigration and oppose illegal immigration. She said the republican style has been terrible. Just want to know if you heard about that speech and would be willing to comment

  • Skeet Duran

    Need more Asian American voices of support from both sides (left and right) for me to change my mind, consider me a swing vote.

  • 1maybeso

    We don’t owe racial justice to foreigners. We owe it to our existing citizens. We can’t permanently live in the past out of some sense of racial guilt. We need sensible immigration policies that take into account the modern realities of population growth and that are fair to Americas. Americans first.

  • pzed

    The laws against illegal immigration are certainly arbitrary, but so are borders in the end. At some point you have to decide what kind of people you want in your country. Mexico is strangling its border to the south. Why? Because it takes illegal immigration into its borders seriously, and it doesn’t want other Central and South Americans crossing into Mexco. No doubt, the US has a rather awful track record on immigration historically and specifically to Asians, but since 1964 it’s been more fair than unfair. I’d say the Hispanics owe more to Asians than the other way around on this issue. Asians don’t owe them much of anything.

    From another perspective, I don’t think more illegal immigration from Hispanic countries is very good for the nation. Hispanics are less likely to integrate into the US mainstream than members of other races down to the 4th generation. This is not a way to build a cohesive society.

    Notice here that I don’t say anything about Asian illegal immigration. I don’t say anything specifically because on average Asians have almost completely integrated into the mainstream by the 3rd generation. I don’t care about birth tourism. I’d encourage it really because it means rich Asians are spending a fortune in the US which improves our economy.

    If there were elite Hispanics doing this, I’d be less likely to oppose that too. But the VAST majority of Hispanic illegal immigrants are from the very bottom of the economic ladder and their kids don’t do as well as illegal immigrants of Asians in school. Our tolerance of their presence in the US is, in a sense, tolerance of paying people less than regular market forces would allow and only encourages more such behavior in the future. Is this something you’re okay with? Be real. If all employers were forced to pay illegal Hispanic workers at legal US wage rates, do you think they’d still hire so many of them over citizens? No. We hire them because they usually do good work on the cheap. Hiring them for low pay because they’re at a market disadvantage compromises our morals.

    Finally, a country’s citizens have the right to choose who they want to let into their borders. I’d support more Asian immigration legal or otherwise, but I’d bet most of the rest of the country wouldn’t see it my way. Israel built some walls and they seem to work. They have fewer suicide bombers now than before. They aren’t facing a flood of immigrants into their country and they probably look at Europe right now and shake their head. I’m not a big fan of Israel, but they have the right to do what they want as far as letting people in. The US has that right too. I think it’s fair that we have laws controlling who comes in as opposed to letting the entire world in. It may be completely arbitrary and unfair, but that’s our right. It’s the right of Mexico to better enforce their immigration laws than we enforce our own. The Mexicans don’t owe other Hispanic immigrants anything, and we (the US) owe Mexican immigrants nothing. They aren’t citizens. They had the unfortunate fate to be born in the wrong place, but not everyone wins the lottery. That’s the way it is.

  • 1maybeso

    Stop, you are making too much sense!

  • As always, great writing and use of facts Jenn! I thoroughly enjoyed the YouTube video you included at the end as well.

  • 1maybeso

    The video was unwatchable. The speaker used some kind of weird, nasal, faux macho, snarky voice that came across as wannabe and inauthentic.

  • Thanks so much, Renwei! This was one of my favorite pieces I’ve written recently so I really appreciate that, and also your shares on Twitter.

    Yea he, I’ve always loved Asian American slam poetry and an a little sad it’s falling by the wayside a little these days. I grew up in the days of Yellow Rage and Two Tongues, so it’s refreshing to have Jason Chu making such great fresh poetry. I don’t know if you’ve checked out his YouTube yet? Lots of good stuff, including a great music video featuring Hudson Yang, for a song exploring the intertwining of geek culture and social justice. I’m always happy to get a chance to share Jason’s stuff and glad you enjoyed this vid.

  • Myra Esoteric

    I think we need to call attention to the fact that there are stronger immigration quotas and travel restrictions on non “first world” countries, such as India, China, Nigeria and Russia, than there are for Western (and ‘Pax Americana’ countries that are politically but not socially Western, like Japan) countries, and that this causes folks to be undocumented in the first place…

  • Myra Esoteric

    Latin immigrants are disproportionately undocumented because of the history of US hegemony and soft-core colonialism in their countries, ranging from the ‘School of the Americas’ to various CIA-induced governmental changes throughout history.

    As some immigration activists have once said, “we are here because you were there”. Also, look up the model minority stereotype because you just repeated it verbatim.

  • pzed

    I’m very familiar with the mm stereotype, thanks, but sometimes facts are facts. In the past 10 years, Asian SAT scores have trended up while all other races’ scores have gone the other way.

    Murray is, of course, using Asians as a foil against protected minorities, but that doesn’t change the facts.

    Oh and as an aside while we’re talking about migrants and porous borders…

    Also yes, the US bears a strong portion of the responsibility for the instability in Central/South America. Would you rather they had done nothing and let Communists rule like in Cuba? I’m not absolving the US of its sins. Not all that’s wrong can be corrected. Not all crimes will see justice. But as the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Current citizens of the US have a right to decide how charitable they want to be to non-citizens. Why should I automatically support people who broke laws, however arbitrary, to get to this country when my own parents had to study their asses off for years before they could get in because of a scholarship? They weren’t rich. They had to eat limestone to get calcium as kids when fleeing Communists.

    The US also invaded Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Did US “colonialism” there turn all their poor residents into economic migrants? Certainly there were a huge number of Vietnamese migrants, but being a no shit war refugee certainly very different from the economic migrants of Central/South America. Chinese are the worst offenders among East Asians, but the US never did invade China.

    But hey, you can always continue to blame US hegemony for all your national problems if it makes you feel better.

  • malik

    Regarding the issue of “illegal immigration,” the Native Indian perspective is probably the best way to deal with this threat:

    It’s long overdue that these Euro-American illegal invaders be rounded up and deported back to Europe!

  • 1maybeso

    Perhaps you can lead by example.

  • malik

    Perhaps, you should go first.

    After all, Proud Amurikans like yourself are the ones who are so obsessed with the “illegals” on this continent–all the while ignoring the reality that they are the misbegotten spawn or beneficiares of the greatest invasion of illegals in history: the Euro-American theft … sorry … discovery of the not-so New World.

  • 1maybeso

    What is an Amurikan? And are you Native American? This post is quite racist.

  • James CoCo

    I know some Asian Americans who oppose immigration because they know it will greatly affect the future of the United States. Sorry, but there needs to be a halt to immigration. After a period of no immigration–maybe for 20 or 30 years–then the U.S. should open up immigration again. Doing this allows for full assimilation of recently arrived immigrants.