National media attention surrounding the issue of immigration has largely centered on President Trump’s derision of “bad hombres” from “shithole countries” — specifically those from Latin America. Immigration activists’ focus on Latinx undocumented immigration is, of course, justified: The majority of undocumented immigrants come from Latin America. However, Trump’s simplification of undocumented immigrants as Latinx allows the American public to forget that a large proportion of undocumented immigrants actually come from Asia. In popular discourse, Asian Americans are lumped together as primarily East Asian, obedient, educated and labor-producing bodies. Regrettably, the counter-narrative that exposes the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Asian immigrants living in the shadows remains largely unheard.
Asian Americans are not only the fastest growing racial minority in the United States, but the fastest growing population of undocumented immigrants as well. Of the 1.8 million Korean Americans in the United States, 200,000 are undocumented, making up a significant percentage of the total population of 1.5 million undocumented Asians. Further, since 1990, the number of undocumented immigrants from South Korea has risen 800 percent. Yet, the plight of these immigrants has received little attention, and, within the overarching narrative of undocumented immigration, there has been little political advocacy specifically in support of Asian undocumented immigrants.
To fully conceptualize this popular disregard of Asian immigrant issues, it is important to first understand Asian America’s racialized history. First, Trump’s travel ban itself has a precedent in Asian America in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law that banned a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. Moreover, historical memories of Japanese internment and, for the Korean community, the 1992 riots in Los Angeles — in which 2,300 Korean-owned businesses were burned or looted — ring fresh in the Asian American collective imaginary. U.S. imperialism — the occupation of the Philippines, the war in Southeast Asia and the Korean war — has also been a significant determinant of the Asian American experience. Overall, these violent histories push back against comfortable model minority tropes imposed on all Asian Americans, and introduce a common thread of experience among immigrant groups.
Today, Asians make up over 10 percent of the population of undocumented immigrants, but only 2 percent of applicants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay in the country. (Only two Asian countries, South Korea and the Philippines, are in the top ten countries of origin for DACA recipients.) According to the Migration Policy Institute, only 15 percent of eligible Korean immigrants had applied for DACA benefits, compared to a DACA participation rate of 65 percent among Mexican immigrants and 62 percent among El Salvadoran immigrants. This gap in DACA participation may be partly due to the difficulties associated with reaching the diverse Asian community in the United States. Moreover, though various ethnic organizations (largely Korean, Filipino and Cambodian) have established strategic plans to reach their undocumented populations, the sheer diversity of language and culture of Asian America hinders any comprehensive efforts to assist the population as a whole.
A whole host of subtle dynamics further complicates the experiences of undocumented Asian immigrants. There is a relative dearth of media outlets for undocumented Asian immigrants. There is no Univision or Telemundo to unite Asian America (nor is it possible to create such television channels). Further, when Asians do attend spaces consisting only of undocumented immigrants, their representatives are often pushed to the margins, and their undocumented experiences are considered different from those of others. There is also a hidden shame among Asian families surrounding the label “illegal” — at least among Korean immigrants. This stigma, in turn, stifles the community’s ability to push for immigrant rights and combat the model minority stereotype, which has been used to label Asian Americans as a self-sufficient monolith without any need for rights and protections.
Trump has remained inconclusive on what to do with DACA, constantly flipping back and forth on his policy proposals. But he has remained steadfast in his disdain for immigrants. Recently, the Korean American Students Association at Brown has begun to focus its efforts on DREAM advocacy and draw more attention to undocumented Asians. The Korean American Students Association sent out an online poll which found that our group’s general body members overwhelmingly support the DREAM Act. Based on the results of this poll, and in conjunction with the nonprofit Korean American Civic Empowerment, KASA hosted a phone bank to advocate for undocumented youth and provide a space for its members to call their respective Congress members in support of the DREAM Act.
The Brown Korean American community stands for the 230,000 Korean undocumented immigrants and 7,000 Korean beneficiaries of DACA. We yearn to see an America in which these immigrants can receive full American citizenship. To achieve this vision, Koreans, Asian Americans and all undocumented immigrants must do more to share their experiences and advance their shared objectives. As an organization composed largely of immigrants and children of immigrants, we at KASA wholly believe that immigrants are a crucial part of American democracy, and that the undocumented individuals among us must be valued as such.
Kion You ’20 and Isaac Kim ’18, members of the Korean American Students Association, can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. Please send responses to this column to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.