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While in Arizona: A Perspective on Undocumented Asian Pacific Islander Immigrant Students & Immigration Policies

ImageMy name is Bryan H. Kim and I am a rising junior at Duke University. I am an intern this summer with ScholarshipsA-Z in Tucson, Arizona, an organization dedicated to providing resources to students, families, and educators in order to make higher education accessible to all regardless of immigration status.  As part of my internship, I began doing research on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which grants a temporary two-year relief from deportation and an authorized work permit for undocumented young adults who meet specific requirements. DACA recipients can apply for a renewal of deferred action and a work permit at the end of the two-year relief (National Immigration Law Center, 2013).

In order to learn about DACA’s impact on communities across the U.S., I began searching for news articles, interviews, photographs, and films about undocumented immigrants and DACA. To my surprise, I noticed a pattern after reading and listening to a sampling of sources in the media.  According to my brief research, most media sources pertinent to DACA shared the voices of Latino/a immigrant activists and photos of the Latino/a population, for instance, waiting in line to apply for DACA and a work permit. Because I am Asian American, I more easily identified the lack of Asian Pacific Islander (API) presence in discussions about this topic.  Hence I questioned, “Why do APIs seem to be excluded from the mainstream media on issues pertaining to DACA and immigration?”

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provided one potential answer.  According to the USCIS, only four of the twenty most common countries of origin for DACA recipients are Asian countries including South Korea, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan. The rest are Latin American countries.  To illustrate numerically, only 3.27% of DACA recipients thus far come from these four Asian countries. 76.1% of DACA recipients are from Mexico, and the second most common country of origin is El Salvador with 3.85% (USCIS).  Given the obviously smaller proportion of the API population, the spotlight on the Latino/a population and absence of APIs in DACA dialogues seems to make sense. However, these numbers did not satisfy my curiosity. 

My continued search led me to watch two documentary films titled The Dream is Now and A DREAM A Part.  The former film featured four undocumented Mexican immigrant students’ and one undocumented Albanian immigrant student’s life stories which are directly affected by the United States’ immigration system.  The latter portrayed stories of five undocumented immigrant students as well, except they were originally from Asian and Pacific Island nations.  Even though both films featured undocumented students who faced similar painful obstacles and have been fighting for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, I found myself a lot less sympathetic towards the undocumented API immigrant students.

I was startled at my apathy; if anything, I thought I would be more sympathetic towards the latter film because I am Asian American.  My unexpectedly apathetic reactions led me to become aware of my subconscious adoption of the Model Minority Myth, a socially constructed perception that continues to marginalize the experiences of Asian Americans in the U.S. (Chou and Feagin, 2010). According to the myth, Asian Americans have been more successful economically and educationally than other minority groups in the U.S. (Kwon and Au, 2010). I wondered if I fell into the trap set by this myth when comparing the experiences of individuals from the two films. I also considered that I never had any exposure to the undocumented API immigrant student population. Both explanations for my apathy seemed reasonable.

Throughout my internship in Tucson this summer, I had the unique opportunity to build friendships with three undocumented Latino/a students of my age.  Through our friendship, I learned about the barriers and struggles they face because of their undocumented immigration status. My experiences made me believe if I watched the film The Dream is Now again, I might feel more sympathetic towards the five students in the film because I now can put faces to the stories and relate the stories to the three friends I made.  On the other hand, I imagine my reactions to the film A DREAM A Part would stay the same because my level of awareness towards the undocumented API student population remains stagnant. This is concerning.

I wish I could have more awareness and be more sympathetic to the difficulties the undocumented API immigrant students go through.  However, it is difficult to imagine and relate because I have had no exposure to members of this particular population. Perhaps, the smaller population of undocumented API immigrants in proportion to the total undocumented population explains my lack of awareness.  Perhaps, the fact that APIs comprise only 3.27% of all DACA recipients explains the lack of API presence in the mainstream media, as well as my lack of exposure.

Regardless of the reason, there is a need for more discussion and awareness about the different racial and ethnic members of our communities who are undocumented.  I believe it is imperative to know that policies like DACA and the current comprehensive immigration reform bills impact undocumented immigrants of various national origins, even those who we are socialized to think might be doing fine.  The needs of undocumented API immigrant students and their families deserve the same attention as all other individuals with this immigrant identity.

As a result, here are some ways we can improve this conversation and be inclusive of all undocumented immigrants in policy discussions.  First, I encourage you to INITIATE CONVERSATIONS about the exclusion of undocumented API immigrant students and families in the mainstream media. Sharing your thoughts with the community around you – whether at work, a café, or dinner table with family – is the first step to sparking further discussions and spreading awareness at a macro-level.  Second, in order to further identify the specific needs of communities we must DISAGGREGATE the different communities under the API umbrella. Grouping individuals under this label assumes all members of the API population go through the same experiences.  Within the current immigration reform debates, this type of grouping may disregard the needs of individuals who are simply identified as “undocumented,” despite having a different racial or ethnic identity, among others. Finally, we must SUPPORT organizations that bring the needs of undocumented API immigrants to the forefront of discussions in our communities.  Organizations, such as Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), seek to empower undocumented API immigrant youth to talk about their issues and identities, and advocate for their rights (ASPIRE, 2013).  When combined with films, like A DREAM A Part, such organizations can help spread awareness and make us listen more closely to the neglected voices of undocumented API immigrants in policy discussions that affect our communities.

Short Biography of the Author:

The ideas shared in this piece are those of Bryan H. Kim, a rising junior studying Public Policy and Market and Management studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  Born in the North Carolina and having grown up in South Korea for more than half of his life, Bryan possesses a unique cosmopolitan identity. Having returned to the U.S. two years ago to attend Duke, Bryan has steadily developed interests in multiculturalism and the U.S. government systems. For more information, contact Bryan at bhk@duke.edu

References
Chou, R.S. & Feagin, J. R. (2010). The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism. Paradigm: Boulder, CO.

Hartlep, Nicholas. “The Model Minority Myth: What 50 Years of Research Does and Does Not

Tell Us.”The Model Minority Myth: What 50 Years of Research Does and Does Not Tell

Us. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 29 Apr 2013. Web. 12 Jun 2013. <http://diverseeducation.com/article/52979/#&gt;

Kwon, H. & Au, W. (2010). “Model Minority Myth” in Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today. v.1. ABC-CLIO, LLC: Santa Barbara, CA.

Takaki, R. (1989). Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian-Americans. Little, Brown & Company: Boston, MA.

N.A. (June 2013) USCIS Report on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Web. 9 July 2013. http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Resources

“A DREAM A Part.” ASPIRE. N.p.. Web. 12 Jun 2013. <http://www.aspiredreamers.org/&gt;.

“The Dream is Now.” Support Immigration Reform & Concepts from The DREAM Act. N.p.. Web. 12 Jun 2013. <http://www.thedreamisnow.org/documentary&gt;.

“What do we do?” ASPIRE. ASPIRE. Web. 21 Jun 2013. <http://www.aspiredreamers.org/&gt;.

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