Where are Asian Americans in the Immigration Debate?

April 7, 2006

Looks like the immigration bill has stalled for now.

Where are Asian Americans in this debate, though? Not in the streets protesting. And sadly, not making much of a presence. Why? Apathy? Fear of rocking the boat? You can't tell me it's disinterest. After all, we are some of the country's newest immigrants. I hate to say it, but some of us seem to live up to the stereotype of meek quiet Asians.

Yesterday's California Report on NPR notes that the protests have been comprised mostly of Latinos and asks how Asian Americans see their role in the immigration debate. Audio clip here.


Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.



If Harry Browne were alive today, this is what we would say. This is waht he said when he ran for President in 1996.Freedom to Come and Go as You PleaseToday’s critics of immigration want to slow the influx of foreigners or stop it completely. They worry that immigrants take jobs away from Americans, go on welfare, or dilute our culture.Some politicians demand that the borders be closed; others want them open. Some politicians say legal immigration is okay, but they want to crack down on illegal immigrants.The arguments about immigration overlook one critical fact: no matter what the politicians say or do, the immigrants keep coming. Immigration policy hasn’t changed noticeably in almost four decades. And whatever changes that are made don’t alter the rate at which immigrants come across the borders.We can argue about open borders vs. closed borders. But the truth is that America's borders are open and they will remain that way – no matter who’s in the White House or Congress.In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, Government Doesn’t WorkThis is because government is no more capable of keeping immigrants out of America than it is of keeping drugs out.No matter how much politicians posture about immigration, there’s little they can do. They could triple the border guard. They could dig a mile-wide moat along the Mexican border or erect a new Berlin Wall there. They could trash what’s left of your privacy by making you carry an identity card.But they won’t stop people who want to get into America. Government immigration policy works no better than its other policies.So politicians continue to pretend they’ll keep out the undesirables if you’ll just give them a little more power and a few more of your civil liberties. But no administration in decades has successfully stemmed the flow of immigrants – and no administration is likely to.TWO TYPES OF IMMIGRANTSPeople are drawn to America by one of two motives.The first type of immigrant sees America as the land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded. It’s a place where he can raise his family in peace, free from armed bandits, both private and governmental, and free to speak and worship as he chooses. All he wants is a chance to prove himself.The other type sees America as the land of the big free lunch – where anyone can get free education, free health care, and free welfare. Those things may be available in his home country, but the helpings here are much larger.The opportunity-seeker is a boon to America. In most cases, he is willing to do work that no American citizen wants to do – such as picking lettuce, cleaning hotel rooms, mowing lawns, or running a store in a rough neighborhood. In other cases, he has exceptional skills – perhaps in high-level computer engineering or other scientific work.The welfare-seeker is a different story. He is here to get on the gravy train. And he won’t be disappointed. The Welcome Wagon will be waiting for him at the border, offering a basket of goodies.If we put the Welcome Wagon out of business by shutting down the welfare state, the welfare-seekers will stop coming, while the opportunity-seekers will continue to arrive with their energy and talent.On the other hand, if we could even find a way to close the borders securely, we’d still have to put up with the welfare state.So if you don’t like having the doors open to free-loaders, the solution once again lies with less government, not more.FEARSFour worries drive most of the opposition to immigration.JobsThe first is that immigrants take jobs away from Americans.It can happen. If an immigrant is willing to work longer hours, work for less pay, or do tasks an American shuns, he could take your job away from you. But the same competition operates even without immigrants. And a new immigrant doesn’t alter the balance between supply and demand for labor.While each working immigrant increases the supply of labor, he also increases the demand for labor. He brings with him a need for products and services – which his job gives him the money to buy. So the immigrant has no net effect on the competition for jobs or the level of wages.Higher wages don’t come from restricting the supply of labor – either through restrictive immigration, labor unions, or government regulation. Higher wages come from investment in tools and machines and training and technology that make workers more productive.The more a worker can produce, the more revenue his employer has available. Part of the increased revenue always finds its way into the employee’s paycheck because the employer doesn’t want to lose well-trained workers to other employers.Immigrants don’t take jobs away from Americans. They increase the demand for labor and they help to meet that demand.WelfareA second worry is that taxpayers will have to provide free health care, free education, and other services to the immigrants.Needless to say, the answer is to stop providing taxpayer-supported welfare to anyone – immigrant or citizen.The Great Libertarian Offer will end government welfare, at least at the federal level, and add to your take-home pay the resources to support those you believe deserve your help.CultureA third concern is that immigration pollutes our culture and replaces America’s traditional values with those of other cultures.It is true that in some parts of the country the culture seems to be changing. Large segments of the population fail to learn English, for example. And fewer and fewer immigrants seem determined to become Americanized in the way most immigrants used to do. But both these problems stem from government.Where immigrants neglect to learn English, it is because the local or federal government caters to the use of their native tongues. Government schools provide foreign-language teachers, and government forms and signs are printed in two or more languages.More immigrants would want to become Americanized if America was the distinctive country it once was. But our nation has become more and more like the Old World – where everyone’s life is run by a government rulebook.The answer to the culture problem isn’t to keep immigrants out, but to restore the America of free individuals, each responsible and self-governing. Immigrants will embrace our culture more quickly when government stops trying to dissolve it.Not Enough RoomThe fourth concern is that America will become overcrowded.But the United States is still a country of wide open spaces. The western states contain hundreds of thousands of square miles of unused land – kept off the market and out of use by the federal government.Advocates of government land ownership imply that the properties are largely beautiful forests and gorgeous canyons. But in fact most of it is flat land, kept off the market for no good reason.America could triple its population without our existing cities growing any faster than they do now. Wonderful new cities could spring up if we just forced the federal government to give up the open land.WHICH DO YOU WANT?It’s easy to imagine that the federal government could keep out undesirable immigrants if it just made the effort. But no government program ever works out the way you imagine it will. An attempt to close the borders would be far more complicated than you might have thought.Tighter immigration laws would mean higher taxes for you, more corruption in law enforcement, and more attacks on your privacy. You’ll be required to carry an identity card, and to submit to searches of your car and home. Increased harassment of companies will add to the costs of what you buy. And all the while, the people you thought were being kept out will keep showing up to tend your yard and wash the dishes at the local restaurants.As with any other issue, turn this over to the politicians and they’ll play politics with it. They will do the picking and choosing of who gets to come in and who is kept out. Their choices will bend, as always, to political influence – to the industries that spend the most on politicians, to the unions that can deliver votes, and to the best organized minorities.Most likely, the people you wanted to keep out will come in, and those you’d welcome will be shut out. The one thing we know for sure is that you won’t be the one who gets to make those decisions.On the other hand, ending the pretense of closed borders and tight immigration would lower your taxes, restore some of your privacy, reduce the costs of many products and services you buy, and increase the demand for your services.TWO CHOICESWe really have only two alternatives. Either we:1. Spend our energy trying to dismantle the welfare state and repeal the income tax, so you no longer will be forced to buy lunch for every immigrant. Or . . .2. Give the politicians the power to decide who gets to come and who will be shut out, and continue to pay for the welfare state.If we try to close the borders before ending the welfare state, it’s very unlikely we’ll succeed in keeping many people out – and we will give government new powers to intrude into your life. Overall, the situation will be even worse than it is now.But if first we dismantle the welfare state and allow you to live in freedom, most worries about immigration will disappear. If they don’t, then we can examine the issue of immigration more closely.Even if it turned out that a new wave of immigrants were hurting America, the nation wouldn’t be transformed overnight. We would have time to deliberate and find a better policy.More likely, as people experience the benefits of smaller government, they will become more skeptical of any plan to put more power and money in the hands of politicians. But they can decide that when the time comes.In the meantime, Libertarians won’t join in pretending that some political policy will keep America Simon pure. We don’t pretend that the government that’s failed at everything else can successfully control our borders.WELFARE vs. FREEDOMTrying to limit immigration is an admission that the welfare state is a failure.It is a confession that America is no longer the most prosperous country in the world – no longer a country so big, so free, and so open-handed that it can accommodate anyone in the world who wants to come here and work to improve his life.A free and prosperous society has no fear of anyone entering it. But a welfare state is frightened of every poor person who tries to get in and every rich person who tries to get out.
It's far too large of an endeavor to discuss individual differences in politics here (I'll never be a Libertarian, and you'll never be a college-aged, lefty Dem), but I can't read the speech posted by From the Late Harry Browne, without questioning a few of its points.Firstly, how does this stance on immigration reflect the question of why Asian Americans are not involved in the immigration debate? It seems to me that much of the debate surrounds border issues (understandably), but a large portion of undocumented people in the US are visa overstayers who crossed oceans and not borders. And some of these are Asians. So whether one wants to keep immigrants in or out, there is a need to step back and examine the larger picture of undocumented immigration. Perhaps, this is why the APA community seems silent. The discourse focuses on Latin Americans, therefore if we keep silent, we won't draw attention to ourselves and the population of undocumented people in our communties. But, in stepping back, we must realize that this is a larger struggle that necessitates coalition building across immigrant groups.Secondly, as the attitude that lies behind this speech demonstrates, there seems to be an ignorance about the needs of the APA community as well as a failure to understand what the word "community" might mean. Asian Americans are one of the most internally diverse panethnic groups in the United States. Did you know that APAs are both more likely to have a bachelor's degree than non-Hispanic whites and two times more likely to have less than a 9th grade education? We are both more likely to have an income over $75,000 and more likely to have an income of $20,000 or less (compared to non-Hispanic whites). How is this possible? Just look at the diversity of our community which includes individuals that are generations removed from Japan or China as well as more recent immigrants who came as political refugees. In identifying oneself as Asian American (in the face of a society which labels us as such regardless), one takes on the responsibility of that panethnic identity so that the needs and fight of all Asian Americans become one in the same. Dismantling the welfare state is not the means to this end. In addition, I find the suggestion that our diverse population become "Americanized" and that government not cater to the language or other needs of APAs to be flagrantly discriminatory and subservient to the hegemonic racial projects that fuel the very racist society that would attempt to make undocumented immigration a felony.
Here is my take on the Asian apathy:Namely, the working class are too afraid to even take one day off for protests, and the well-to-do are too cozy with the anti-immigrant interests in the Republican Party to rebel against them.I know, and live among, plenty of people in the latter category - namely, those among the newer Korean and Vietnamese immigrants who have become the nouveau-riche of Southern California. Despite all the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republicans, I have NOT seen a single rich Korean or Vietnamese speak up; in fact, their Republican allegiance is stronger than ever, because the Republicans are supposedly the party that will go "kick the behinds" of North Korea and Vietnam, ban abortions and gay marriages (especially biggies among Korean Christians), and keep business regulations loose so that they won't have to pay for even rudimentary benefits for their working-class employees.Despite the rhetoric of the Republican Party, the Korean and Vietnamese rich continue to call the GOP the true pro-immigrant party, because all the Dems ever do are "teaching you to rely on welfare so that you will never develop, as they've done to African-Americans."So not only do they NOT belong to the protests against the anti-immigration bills, they actually deserve to be thoroughly screwed over by their Republican buddies.Oh, and as for the libertarian (known as neoliberal just about anywhere else outside the US) philosophy, it's just about as sensible as communism - a pure ideological baloney that's doomed to fail.
Hi Lauren and Rachel, thanks for the posts, good points.There is some organizing going on:Story in the Washington Post about other ethnic groups joining the rallies.Also SAALT (South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow) has been pretty vocal.
"Where are Asian Americans in the Immigration Debate?"Indeed, no where! Melissa, you read my mind!At best it is somewhere deep in the background. Too timid to speak up or jostle to the front during photo-ops. The term "diplomatic" would be used otherwise.And no law-abiding, tax-paying, 9-5-working Asian-Ams would be caught death waving the Vietnamese (which one?)/Korean (which one?)/Chinese (which one?)/Indian or Pakistani flag.Therein lies the dilemma. Who are we as a racial ethnic group? And whom are we supposed to be is another way of asking this identity question.Thanks for getting this debate going, Melissa. I hope more would jump in. And since May is coming up, I will come back to this space with a few brain-droppings about the so-called APIA(?) Heritage.
You guys want to know my take on the immigration issue?You're going to wish you hadn't asked "Where are the Asians?" for the second time after the big news media coverage of Katrina exposing pre-dominantly poor African Americans left behind. Wendy Cheng asked, "Where are the Asians?" from "Remodeling The Minority: The Prospects for Vietnamese Americans In A "New" New Orleans" article. Now the media focus is on the Hispanics. And do you want to know why? Look what's been going on at the border near San Diego.Ask your parents and your grandparents about this issue. Don't just talk amongst your own 18-20yr old age groups and assume "why aren't there any Asians speaking out about this?" As if there's any 'enthusiastic' illegal 18-20yr old Asian immigrants who would protest against the immigration bill.And you want to blame the Republican Party for being racist on immigration? Fair enough. If you want to take your freedom or "the land of the free," for granted, remember that kid from Cuba? His relatives held him hostage from his father until immigration service agents stepped in. Bill Clinton was the President at the time.And if any of us were illegal immigrants, what would we do as a group or individually? I don't know about you guys but, I'll do what I got to do to get my U.S. Citizenship. The price for freedom is costly and heartbreaking.
This is for you, Mr. Lam.I recently sent the below out to a group of individuals (Repubs, Greens, Dems, Red & Blue Staters, NRA-membership-card-carrying, ACLU-devoting, you name it), part of a national/international network that I belong to.The current debate about immigration goes beyond & deeper than the legality or illegality of it. Its impact & ramifications will last much longer than you & I can fathom. It goes to the heart of what defines us all as a nation, as a people and as the ONLY DOMINANT (bullying!) economic, political & military force on earth.So for us, people of the yellow-hued & persuation, to not be part of the equation, discussion, or the picture is a dereliction of responsibility.As Americans, or residents of the US, who have the command of the English language, and the capacity of independent thoughts beyond & without Fox News, KPFA, NPR, The Nation, Alternet & what-have-you, we've got to jump in. Think of the "Tank Man" of Tiananmen Square.Mr. Spock, a fictional character, may have uttered these words "in the insane society, the sane man must appear insane," but the inspiration actually came from Akira Kurosawa who once said, "In a mad world only the mad are sane."Good day, Mr. Lam.===(My original missive includes a photo of the Grand Lake marquee that carried Sinclair Lewise's prophetic quote -- WHEN FASCISM COMES TO AMERICA, IT WILL BE WRAPPED IN THE FLAG & CARRYING A CROSS.)Dear comrades:I snapped this pix this morning. This is the famous Oakland's Grand Lake Theater in my neighborhood, which gained international fame for refusing to enforce the "R" rating for Fahrenheit 9/11, also setting box office record for a documentary. The owner of the theater changes the marquee with something pithy every 2 or 3 weeks since Sept. 11. Grand Lake's fans have more pix posted on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/grand-lake/.Has America turned into a Fascist State? Maybe not the entire country, but a large segment of the population sure seems to be goose-stepping in that direction. Below is a passage from Wikipedia, part of a longer piece about fascism."Fascism attracted political support from diverse sectors of the population, including big business, farmers and landowners, nationalists, and reactionaries, disaffected World War I veterans, intellectuals such as Gabriele D'Annunzio, Curzio Malaparte and Martin Heidegger to name a few, conservatives and small businessmen, and the poor to whom they promised work and bread."I saw Fahrenheit 9/11, however, I was more disturbed by the so-called "patriotic" expression and reaction of the American public than the war in Iraq and what our current government has been up to. It was rather frightening to see how American soldiers treated combat (and killing Iraqis) like a video game, with heavy metal/rap music blasting in the background. Don't forget the pornographic nature of the Abu Ghraib scandal.I am not one who is quick to embrace the notion that a Democratic Party-controlled government is LESS MILITARISTIC & LESS CORRUPT. It's the nature of our society, values and the so-called democratic system and the rule of law that is in question and ought to be re-examined.I've been in this country for over twenty years now, and have voted in every election since 1985, when I gained my American citizenship. Don't mean to boast, but I've done more for this country and its various disenfranchised segments of the population than most "native, born-in-America" Americans can claim for themselves.However, it has become more & more difficult to understand & distinguish what is the "real" America & its inherent goodness. It seems so much about America has been shaped by Madison Avenue, TV & movies. So much of America is wrapped up in legalese, and of course, the above Sinclair Lewis'es quote.There is a war going on, but it does not feel so here in the US. We are happy & engaged in discussion about the personal travails of the American Idols, Desperate Houswives & why Crash snatched the Best Picture Oscar from Brokeback Mountain. Our news media (print, radio & TV) devote an inordinate amount of time to what happened to Natalee Holloway, the Da Vinci Code, the Olsen Twins & the Jolie/Pitt/Aniston triangle.We were recently treated to March Madness and have been spoon-fed daily about Barry Bonds' steroid-enhanced athletic prowess.Do we care? Do we want to know what has happened to our country? Are we any bit concerned about the fact that our way of life, our government, our over-consumption of natural resources have turned the world upside down? We, yes we, the American people, have made the world less stable & secure!Sixty-two million Americans voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Sixty-two million people is A HUGE number. We can't discount this as a fringe group of anti-immigrant, bible-thumbing, trailer-living, pick-up-truck-driving, small-minded Americans. Most of us know or are related to someone who voted for Bush in the last two elections. Most of us came from the same places where these 62 million voters came from.Noam Chomsky has said again & again, there are two Americas, the domestic & the foreign. However, the two Americas seem to have merged in recent years.Those of us who were born & brought up elsewhere have had the privilege of experiencing the foreign America first hand. The American government that most of the world has been looking at since World War II has not changed. It has been very consistent, from Africa (Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin) to Latin America (Manuel Noriega, Augusto Pinochet) to Asia (Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto), many other examples where what we profess to and preach domestically do not match our actions abroad.Against this backdrop, our lives have become more comfortable in America: Wal-Mart, Toyota Prius,The Gap, organic mangoes & coffee, Google & Blackberry, gasoline that is cheaper than most places on earth but we are still bitching about it. Whatever that we don't have here, we import it from somewhere or have people in other countries make it for us on the cheap.So what to do? I don't know. Give up? Tempting! Disillusioned & disappointed? Definitely.More to come. Have a good weekend.
Sincere apologies. The previous post came from me. I was a bit too quick at the keyboard there.Thanks.