You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. In many ways, our stories are different. I am ethnically Chinese, not Korean. My first language is English. I have not (yet) been married. I am not (yet) a mother.
But in many ways, our stories are similar. Like you, I am an immigrant and an Asian American woman. Like you, I’ve had to navigate the complex web of U.S. immigration law just to maintain my life here, and like you, I’ve felt the fear that comes with the possibility of falling out of status. Like you, I’ve lain awake at night terrified that I have run out of options; that I am trapped; that there’s nobody who will help, or will even understand what’s happening.
I can only imagine how much harder trying to survive U.S. immigration law would be when also a survivor of domestic violence. As immigrants and women of colour and with already so few options available, I can only imagine what it’s like to have the possibilities further limited by having to secure not only your own physical safety, but also the physical safety of your child.
They say that domestic abuse is about exerting power. I think it is about weaponizing fear.
This is a terrible story of the American legal system getting it really wrong.
Nan-Hui Jo is a single mother of 6-year-old daughter Hwi. Jo is currently imprisoned in the Yolo County jail facing trumped up child abduction charges after she made the impossible decision to take her daughter home to South Korea, in hopes of escaping the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon her by the child’s father, Iraq war veteran Jesse Charlton.
For five years, Jo cared for Hwi in South Korea; for that same five years, Charlton sent over a hundred emails to Nan-Hui that ranged from concern to threats of hiring a bounty hunter. Unbeknownst to Jo, Charlton also filed charges against Nan-Hui for child abduction. When Jo — a Korean national in the process of applying for permanent residency — applied to travel to Hawaii to check out schools for the American-born Hwi, ICE was notified by the US embassy in Seoul and Jo was arrested and sent to Yolo County to stand trial on the child abduction charges. Meanwhil, Hwi was sent to live with Charlton — a father she didn’t know — who has since denied Jo a chance to see her daughter.
Jo’s first trial last December on the child abduction charges ended in a hung jury. Now, she faces retrial and, if she loses, will likely be deported without ever having a chance to see her daughter again.
In 2008, Obama promised constituents comprehensive immigration reform within his first term, but a combination of Republican obstructionism and a prioritization of other issues (like healthcare reform) led to the tabling of the issue. By Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, immigration activists were frustrated and alarmed, Obama’s inaction coupled with his administration’s record high rate of returns and removals led to many on the Progressive Left to start labeling him the “Deporter-In-Chief”. A multiracial coalition of activists including prominent AAPI civil rights organizations and undocumented immigrants such as Jose Antonio Vargas and Ju Hong lobbied tirelessly to pressure Obama and the Left to address immigration reform before 2016. They held the rest of us accountable by refusing to allow the fight for comprehensive immigration reform to leave the spotlight.
Last night, these activists should be taking a victory lap, because last night President Obama took the first step towards that promise of comprehensive immigration reform. And, while it is a small step with many caveats, it’s a necessary one.
Although most avenues of legal citizenship to North America involves skill- or job-based visas, one of the lesser-known avenues of immigration to Canada and the US involves visas that are informally referred to as investor visas (a class that I was unaware existed until today). In brief, wealthy foreign nationals — those with a net worth in the millions — have the option to apply for a special visa status if they agree to loan the American government $500,000 (or, $800,000 if you’re trying to immigrate to Canada) for a fixed period; in return, these “investor nationals” are granted permanent residency with an option to apply for citizenship.
Or, in other words, for wealthy foreigners, American and Canadian citizenship is for sale, and the cost is a paltry half a million dollars. Or, rather it’s actually free — the money is returned to the visa holder (interest-free) after three to five years.
This afternoon, I was thinking more about this petition. And it occurred to me: perhaps instead of advocating for a Lunar New Year federal holiday, we should instead have a discussion about establishing “Immigrants Day” as a U.S. federal holiday?
Okay, bear with me for a second on this one. In this country, there are eleven U.S. federal holidays, highlighting and commemorating landmark moments in American history. We “celebrate” (with a fair and arguably justified share of controversy) the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. We honour veterans and military service who served in the many defining wars that America has engaged in through both Veterans Day and Memorial Day. We celebrate the contributions of the labour movement with Labour Day. We remember the triumphs and sacrifices of this nation’s civil rights leaders and how the civil rights movement changed America when we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Yet, not a single day exists to celebrate America’s immigrants and its long, detailed history of immigration legislation and immigration reform.
America is a nation founded by immigrants, including many of the very Founding Fathers who first established this country. The very fabric of America is intertwined with immigration and the immigrants who have shaped and changed what it means to be American in America. In fact, I would argue that first-generation immigrants offer among the most inspiring stories of the American narrative: first-generation Americans are Americans who have chosen the American dream, who have left home and family to pursue the American dream, who have sacrificed to become a part of the American Dream. They are not Americans by accident of birth; first-generation immigrants are Americans by decision.
Many Asian Americans see the current petition asking for Lunar New Year to be made a federal holiday as long-overdue acknowledgement of the contributions of the Asian American community. But, only a subset of Asian Americans actually observe Lunar New Year; by contrast, I would argue that an Immigrant Day would include the entire Asian American community, as well as the narratives of many other communities including many Latino Americans, African Americans, and White Americans. Nearly 13% of all American are first-generation foreign-born immigrants, and of those roughly 1/3 are Asian Americans of all genders, ethnicities, languages, religions, and creeds; still more Americans are only one or two generations away from a foreign-born immigrant who first set down their family’s roots in this country. Immigrants can be found in every sphere of American life, society, culture, and industry; indeed, waves of immigrants have helped to make America the most diverse, economically successful, technologically-advanced and vibrant country in the world today.
Not only would an Immigrants Day celebrate the contributions of immigrants to the American experience, but it would also be an opportunity to remind ourselves of how immigration legislation has evolved over the generations. It would be a chance to remember this nation’s history of racist immigration law, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as well as other race-based immigration laws that restricted immigration into the U.S.; but, it would also be an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the events that led to the historic 1965 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the national origins formula and became a pioneering piece of open-armed immigration legislation that is still a model to other governments, worldwide.
Tonight, President Barack Obama redoubled his call for passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Perhaps, now is the perfect time for Asian Americans to band together with African Americans, Latino Americans, and immigration reform activists to start a discussion advocating for a federal day of celebration and remembrance to commemorate the contributions of America’s immigrant population. I propose that Immigrants Day could be observed on October 3, the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act into law.
And, that is definitely a White House petition I would sign.
Update: I created the White House petition. Please share this link: http://wh.gov/dIvd and urge others to sign it. It needs 100,000 signatures to garner an official response.