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.