We Are Not Newcomers or Bystanders: Asian Americans and the Struggle for Immigration Reform

Taking part in the immigrant rights rally in Washington D.C. on April 10th is significant for me, not only as an immigrant and an advocate for racial justice, but as an Asian American. Despite common perceptions, Asian Americans are neither newcomers nor bystanders in the struggle for equality of immigrants in the United States. We are inheritors of a history of restrictive and racist immigration policies, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to quotas limiting migration from Asian countries to the post 9/11 program called NSEERS (National Security Entry/Exit Registration System). We are also the beneficiaries of the courageous acts of people such as Takao Ozawa, Bhagat Singh Thind and many others who challenged unfair immigration policies at the beginning of the 20th century. This history of resilience and struggle continues today, as Asian American DREAMers, exploited workers, detained immigrants and separated family members share stories of hardship and mistreatment, and call for changes to our country's broken immigration system.

Today, as hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities across the country to demand immigration policy reform, Asian Americans, including Ian Cainglet, Lundy Khoy, Kevin Lee and Bithi Roy, did the same. They traveled to Washington for the "Citizenship for 11 Million" rally to speak out, share their personal stories, and urge lawmakers to improve the immigration system at a briefing organized by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). They joined Asian American community leaders, members of Congress, and organizers and advocates coming from Queens, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Each of their experiences illustrates the fissures and cracks within an immigration system that often prioritizes economic considerations and heavy-handed enforcement over the hopes and desires of ordinary people seeking to deepen family networks, make a living, and contribute to their neighborhoods and communities.

Kevin Lee, an undocumented immigrant from Los Angeles, is among the one million plus undocumented Asian Americans in this country. A graduate of UCLA with a history degree, he works as an immigrant rights organizer with the Korean Resource Center. Kevin summoned the courage to share his story to ensure that families like his own, with parents working minimum wage jobs to survive and living in fear of being caught by police, can come out of the shadows.
Kevin was joined by Ian Cainglet, who was one of 350 teachers recruited from the Philippines to teach at a Louisiana public school on an H-1B visa after paying exorbitant fees. Despite promises of economic opportunities, Ian came to Louisiana in 2008 to find that he had no teaching position waiting for him. He and other teachers had the courage to be part of a successful class action lawsuit brought by the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ian is now a teacher in New Mexico.

Lundy Khoy, a legal resident who resides in D.C., and Bithi Roy, a South Asian from New York City, also shared their stories today. Lundy was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 to Cambodian parents fleeing the country's genocide. She came to the U.S. when she was one and became a legal permanent resident. But in 2004, while finishing a probationary sentence for a drug possession, she was detained and incarcerated for nearly nine months. Lundy continues to face deportation even though she has paid her dues -- twice over.

Bithi, a domestic violence advocate in New York City, represents the hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans waiting to be reunited with their family members. A U.S. citizen, Bithi longs to have her siblings, who live in Bangladesh, join her in the United States. Yet, they have been separated from one another, unable to celebrate momentous occasions such as the birth of Bithi's child, or to provide an economic and personal network for one another.

These four courageous people represent countless stories and experiences that all point to the need for significant changes in our immigration policy and system. As we wait for immigration legislation to be introduced, one thing is clear: the immigration reform movement has galvanized and energized Asian Americans regardless of economic conditions, country of origin, or immigration status. The majority of Asian Americans support immigration reform and do so across political party affiliations, according to a November 2012 exit poll of Asian Americans conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). This should not come as a surprise, given that three-fourths of Asian Americans were born outside the U.S. As immigrants or children of immigrants, we interface with every aspect of the immigration system -- as workers, family members, entrepreneurs and innovators, students, asylees and refugees and detainees.

I was proud to be among the Asian Americans rallying around the country today in support of immigrant rights. We did so hand in hand with Latino and African immigrants, alongside Native American, African American and white allies. And we will continue to engage in the critical conversations over immigration policy in the months to come, with the history of our own hard-fought struggles for racial justice and the courage of people like Kevin, Bithi, Lundy and Ian in our hearts and minds.