Good Immigrant, Bad Immigrant: What the Repeal of DACA Means for Undocumented Asian Americans

For the 120,000 Asian Americans eligible for the program, model minority pressures run high.
October 20, 2017

­DACA recipient and activist Raymond Partolan at the March for Immigration Reform in 2013 (photo courtesy of Raymond Partolan).


Last month, Raymond Partolan was in New York City on the day Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was repealed. On vacation with college friends, Partolan was planning to attend the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, but decided to stay in his Airbnb to watch Jeff Sessions announce the repeal of DACA live.

“I remember how devastated and angry I felt — because it’s not even just about me. It’s about almost 800,000 DACA recipients across the country who have, for the last five years, come out of the shadows, declared themselves to be undocumented, presented themselves to the government so that they could get their driver’s licenses and work, and essentially pay almost $500 every two years just to be able to live a normal life in this country,” Partolan said.

A DACA recipient and paralegal for Kuck Immigrations LLC, Partolan said after watching the announcement he skipped the U.S. Open and went out to protest instead, among fellow DACA recipients. “There were hundreds of us outside of Trump Tower carrying signs. Some of my friends got arrested during the protest. I couldn’t sit back and do nothing. I needed to be out in the community expressing our dismay at what had just happened.”


Reliable Resources

“I’m a DACA recipient and I have been able to work, to get a driver’s license, and to pursue a career in immigrant rights,” said Anthony Ng at a DACA webinar hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice affiliation (AAAJ) on September 14, 2017. We never saw his face. Slide after slide, his voice was a virtual guide through the webinar. Ng, a policy advocate for immigrant rights, said DACA was a lifeline for young people like him, allowing them to go to school, get an education, and access healthcare. “I’ve met other young people who have DACA who are able to sustain themselves, provide for themselves, their families, and to live a normal life,” said Ng. The slide changed and the webinar switched tracks: what to do if an employer asks for immigration status; resources for undocumented Californians; a DACA application fee scholarship and deadlines to pay attention to.

Since the Trump administration’s repeal of DACA, webinars like AAAJ’s “Dismantling DACA and Pursuit of the DREAM Act” have cropped up online in an attempt to educate people who tune in anonymously. During the webinar, Ng said there is a relative scarcity of DACA applications coming from the Asian American community. “In terms of the impact of the DACA program in the Asian American community, there are about 16,000 Asian immigrants that have applied to this. They’re mainly from India, Pakistan, Korea, and more. But in the pool of eligible populations we estimate there’s about 120,000 Asian immigrants who are eligible for DACA.”

This disparity between applications and DACA-eligible people shows a low utilization of the DACA program within a significant population of undocumented immigrants. Multiple factors contribute to this disparity, like the lack of resources for a community of “model” immigrants, the stigma that erases their struggles, and the choice not to apply from a cost-benefit perspective.


The Stigma

For Partolan, growing up as an Asian American undocumented person in the South meant there was no one around him to empathize with his situation. He says, “Being undocumented and Asian is like having this huge blemish. Like, ‘Oh, you’re not the perfect person of color that I thought you were.’ You have this scar on you.”

Partolan’s father, who had an H1B worker visa, became a physical therapist and tried to get a green card by taking the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language. He passed every section except the speaking portion, which he kept failing in very small margins. Eventually the International Migration Services (IMS) denied his family’s green card application, thinking his English wasn’t competent enough despite his fluency.

“Growing up, I remember that we became undocumented and the entire Filipino community ostracized us. We became estranged… It was almost as if we had contracted some kind of virus. No one wanted to be around us anymore because we were undocumented.” Partolan said within the Filipino community, the phrase for people who are undocumented is "TNT," or “tago nang tago” in Tagalog. “It translates directly into ‘hiding and hiding.’ There is such a great stigma on being undocumented for Filipino Americans, that there’s a phrase in the language to describe people like that. Just imagine how that feels growing up.”

There are over 20 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States, and about half of them are foreign-born. According to Kevin Kumashiro, an educational consultant and former interim co-director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, about 14 percent of those people are undocumented.

“There’s this invisibility that needs to be addressed,” said Kumashiro. “Two major groups that often overlook undocumented AAPIs are the AAPI and undocumented communities themselves. It’s a large percentage of the AAPI population and yet the AAPI community doesn’t seem to be saying ‘This is our issue that we need to be invested in.’ On the flip side, I feel similarly about the undocumented community.”

These numbers correlate with “Data on Undocumented Asian Americans,” a widely-cited infographic created by Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, and founder of Dr. Ramakrishnan said most people are shocked to hear that one in every seven AAPI is undocumented.

“The image that most people have of Asian immigrants is the assumption that they’re legal permanent residents, or they’re here on student visas,” said Ramakrishnan. “So the issue of undocumented immigration is still invisible both within our communities and also in the way the issue is understood by the general public.” He went on to clarify that there’s been a significant increase in the number of undocumented AAPIs in the United States since 2000, and that those numbers have more than tripled to 1.7 million today.

DACA-eligible AAPIs are disproportionately less likely to utilize the program than their Latinx counterparts, which poses a different set of problems and concerns. “Many community organizations serving Asian populations have noted that it’s difficult for them to be able to get language assistance and to be able to provide the kind of documents needed. Part of that is because many Asian consulates are not helpful and sometimes do not cooperate when trying to provide current or valid documentation,” said Ramakrishnan.

The gap between the number of eligible recipients and the number of applications is indicative of something greater: the number of undocumented AAPI who don’t have support systems or language resources. Further, it’s important to remember that the executive order that put DACA in place was never meant to be a permanent, all-encompassing solution. The program only covered 800,000 out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Activists gather on the steps of the Georgia Capitol Building during the March for Immigration Reform in 2013 (photograph courtesy of Raymond Partolan).


The Myth

The model minority myth, while a major contribution to stigma in AAPI communities, only plays a partial role in AAPI’s DACA application disparity. Dr. Tom K. Wong, associate professor of Political Science at University of California, San Diego, said shame is part of the equation but not the whole story. “If you’re telling an undocumented AAPI that [they’d] get two-year temporary relief from deportation, even though the threat of deportation is real, it’s not as thick in one’s day-to-day as it might be for, say, a Mexican DACA recipient. So the incentive may not be there for AAPIs to apply, and AAPIs may be biding their time because AAPIs are disproportionately represented in visa backlogs.”

Wong came to the United States at two years old and graduated high school in the year 2000, two or three years before there were any undocumented student advocacy groups. “I am literally finding myself to be undocumented, not knowing anybody else who looked like me in a similar circumstance, trying to scream out to the world that I need help, and just hearing nothing back because there was no space,” he said. Luckily, Wong’s girlfriend at the time proposed and he was able to adjust his status through marriage. Looking back, Wong reflected that if it were not for his wife, he would have been in an entirely different situation. “I would have been a DACA recipient. I would have made that DACA cutoff by six months. I just think about how my life would change if all I’m thinking about right now is March 5th of next year, and how to stay with my kids... It’s unimaginable how people get by day to day, essentially with a clock that’s running out on their ability to live their lives as they’ve known them.”

Partolan believes that the prevalence of the model minority myth is a heavy burden in general. “As Asian Americans, society places — and we place on ourselves — such high standards for success and for greatness and for being the model minority. This is something that’s been ingrained into us and it’s something we have to dismantle little by little.”

To Kumashiro, the model minority myth bogs down the general public from bigger issues. “The more politically potent problem is that the model minority stereotype actually distracts us. It turns our attention to the performance of individuals. The problem with focusing on individual performance is that we ignore the really systemic and structural problems.”


The Shaping of a Narrative

But besides politicizing undocumented AAPIs as invisible, does the intersection of the model minority myth affect the image of the “successful” DACA recipient? Is the myth reinforced twofold, thereby placing even more pressure on undocumented AAPIs?

Megan Essaheb, Director of Immigration Advocacy at Advancing Justice | AAJC, believes the model minority myth creates a divided “good immigrant, bad immigrant” narrative. “A population that’s important in the AAPI community is folks who are lawful permanent residents, green card holders, who get convictions that make them deportable,” she said. Essaheb confirmed that while the public has been focusing on the “ideal” immigrants who deserve a path to citizenship, there have been more deportations of longtime lawful permanent residents, many of them Asian American. Commonly people who came as refugees at a young age from Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, they are now new targets of the current administration’s deportation system due to past convictions. “A lot of their convictions are very old, but now because the system has gotten focused on people with criminal backgrounds, and also because the deportation system’s resources are suddenly so massive, they’re deporting people who the government wasn’t deporting before,” Essaheb said.

So spotlighting successful immigrants who are doing good things is important because the family immigration system is under attack; but, at the same time, the duality of the model minority, “good/bad immigrant” myth makes it easy for the government to turn so quickly on AAPIs who aren’t doing as well. It’s a thin line to tread. “We want to lift up immigrants who are doing good things, but we don’t want to disparage people who are working for minimum wage,” Essaheb said. “I think the answer here is to make sure that we’re showing the broad diversity of immigrants and really try to value all the different ways that people contribute. When people are really struggling we need to humanize their story and place it into a broader context of how they ended up in that situation.”

Wong believes this “good immigrant/bad immigrant” narrative stems from a political communications tactic to convince people who are undecided about the issue. He says, “We don’t want to say, here are all these great DACA recipients while ignoring other DACA recipients who may be struggling. I don’t think any immigration advocate who is trying to uplift and amplify the stories of successful DACA recipients doesn’t appreciate that. It’s strategic. We know that you’re not going to convince somebody by saying all of these folks are struggling. That’s not what people want to hear. And even though that is not true for all folks and that misrepresents the immigrant experience, that’s part of the politics of trying to get folks on board who may be in the middle.”


The DREAM Act: A Proposed Solution

To Essaheb, undocumented AAPIs who don’t live in major cities are the ones to worry about the most. For them, resources and organizations that advocate for civil rights are not as prevalent since they're typically headquartered near bigger cities. Getting undocumented AAPIs the education, language translation services, and other resources they need through targeted outreach is a method that Wong said universities like UC San Diego have employed.

“The undocumented student service coordinator can work with the financial aid office and get a list of individuals who are [undocumented] and then for all of those individuals send out an email. Instead of creating a space and hoping people that are diverse show up, you can do direct outreach to individuals who actually represent the diversity of the undocumented student population,” Wong said. He acknowledged that there’s no similar phone book or list of email addresses like this for the rest of the country, outside of institutions. “Unless people self-select into attending workshops or engaging with advocacy organizations, then all they really have to rely on is the news — and the news is designed to provide information, not support and comfort an individual.”

Kumashiro’s publication, A Report on the Status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Education: Beyond the “Model Minority” Stereotype (National Education Association, 2005) stresses that the DREAM Act would “eliminate the federal provision that discourages states from offering in-state tuition to undocumented students. It would also set up a process for undocumented students to apply for legal status.” He stressed that every child in the country deserves educational opportunities and that immigration status should not matter. “We seem to have, as a country, lost that kind of democratic commitment. Or maybe we never had it.”

Essaheb stresses that the most important thing people can do is contact members of Congress and senators to push for the DREAM Act, a proposed alternative to DACA. “Go to meet them in their districts. You can get a group of people together, different community leaders or just concerned constituents, and go have a meeting.” At the AAAJ’s webinar, a list of key members of Congress and Senate Democrats and Republicans was circulated among the attendees, along with an adjustable message template for contacting them.

To Partolan, getting the DREAM Act instated is important, but not without some concerns; according to him, Congress may see pushing the DREAM Act as an invitation to be harsher towards undocumented people without DACA. “Everyone, every day needs to be calling their members of Congress, we need the DREAM Act now. But we need a clean DREAM Act. We have to be very clear that our communities will not be used as a bargaining chip to send our parents home. Our parents brought us here and they came here in the search of better opportunities, just like everyone else. We can’t demonize the entire undocumented community at the expense of protecting DACA recipients.”

For Kumashiro, forging a new system is an obligation. “We’ve advanced with civil rights and human rights because people before us realized they needed to advocate for the most marginalized. The argument that we need reform because there are some good immigrants is totally missing the boat. We need reform because we’ve created a highly problematic, biased, racist immigration program in this country.”


Nancy Huang


Nancy Huang is a journalist and writer. She is the author of a poetry collection, Favorite Daughter (Write Bloody Publishing). Her work appears in ORANGE Magazine, The Austin-American Statesman, Winter Tangerine Review, and others.