President Obama is scheduled to honour 19 individuals today with receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award available to civilians. Among this year’s recipients is Patsy Mink, the former representative from Hawaii who died in office in 2002, and was nonetheless so beloved by her constituency that she was re-elected by a wide margin.
Mink is an incredible Asian American icon, most notable for co-authoring Title IX, the landmark legislation that integrated college campuses and athletics for women. Mink is also notable for being the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, as well as the first Asian American to seek a presidential nomination when she ran in the Democratic primary in Oregon in 1972. Mink’s life story is told in the documentary Ahead of the Majority.
In a speech — less than 20 minutes long and snubbed by the country’s major cable networks — President Barack Obama made history (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.
One of my chief complaints about the Obama administration (of which there are only a few, mind you) is their relative silence on the immigration debate. Immigration policy in this country is extremely broken, and one of the reasons I supported Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was based on the promise of immigration reform.
Today, the president addressed immigration with the announcement that he had signed an Executive Order to halt the deportation of young illegal immigrants. Under the new policy, those who entered the country illegally while 16 or younger, who are currently 30 or younger, who have lived in the U.S. continuously for up to five years, and who can demonstrate a successful academic or military history in this country, can delay deportation proceedings for up to two years and can also apply for a work permit, which would grant them legal (non-citizen) status.
As an Asian-American, I am particularly excited by this announcement. A significant percentage (69% in 2000) of Asian Americans are foreign-born immigrants; thus, any change in immigration policy will substantially impact our community. More specifically however, Asians make up the second largest illegal immigrant population at 1.4 million (and represent ~13% of all illegal immigrants). Although statistics are understandably hard to come by, the majority of Asian illegal immigrants are believed to be visa overstays, who remain in the country after their tourist or student visas have expired, and often to raise young families. Consequently, the number of young Asian illegal immigrants whose parents brought them into this country at a young age and who would be affected by President Obama’s announcement could be significant. When California legalized enrollment of young illegal immigrants into the UC school system in 2o01, an estimated 40% of undocumented students in that state were of Asian descent by 2005.
In my mind, President Obama’s press conference today was a landmark announcement that brings us one step closer not only to realizing the DREAM Act, but which will also reinvigorate the immigration debate. It signals the administration’s ongoing interest in reforming immigration policy so that it is motivated less by irrational, racial and ethnic xenophobia and conservative fear-mongering, and is based more on encouraging the influx and retention of immigrants based on their demonstrated skill and education. This can only benefit America: attracting more potential business-owners, scientists, and engineers will stimulate the American economy by enhancing the quality of its workforce.
Way to go, President Obama. I, for one, totally approve.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!