Friday, April 8, 2011

Asian Americans Should Care about Immigration

The public faces of undocumented people in the U.S. are people from central and South America. The Latino group has been leading the effort to demand a path to citizenship and to challenge legislation that would discriminate undocumented immigrants.

Where are the Asian faces? Among the 12 million undocumented people in the U.S., about 1.5 million are Asians. They have come from different Asian countries. Many don’t speak English and work in jobs that others don’t want.

At the annual meeting of Pacific, Asian, North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) held in Norcross, Georgia, from March 24 to 26, 2011, participants discussed the theme “Immigration, Borders, and Boundaries.”

Anne Joh, a professor at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary set the context by discussing border and boundaries in globalization and the neo-liberal economy. She pointed out scholars such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that contemporary Empire is increasingly de-territorialized, with capital and labor moving across national boundaries. Yet, Joh said, walls have been constructed to keep people out and to maintain national boundaries, such as the walls in Israel and along the U.S. border.

Among the Asian undocumented immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people face double marginalization. Elizabeth Leung of the Pacific School of Religion talked about the invisibility of Asian LGBTQ people and the difficulties for them to come out to their community. Since they are undocumented, they cannot access supportive systems and ask for help when they are in need. Leung reminded us that there are more than 2,100 verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. The aliens are included in the category of the poor, and we should be concerned about their welfare.

Helen Kim Ho, a Korean American lawyer who left her practice of corporate law to become the Executive Director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, Inc., challenged the participants to be involved in immigration issues. As a person of faith, she said churches and faith communities have very important roles to play to stand up for the voiceless and to shape the values of society.

Ho said Asian Americans should not remain silent on immigration issues. As a group Asian and Pacific Islanders were the first to be stigmatized in the nation’s immigration law. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester A. Arthur, effectively stopped Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese to become U.S. citizens. It was the first major law restricting immigration to the U.S.

The Chinese Exclusion Act foreshadowed the other acts restricting immigration in the 1920s. In 1929 the National Origins Act capped overall immigration to the U.S. at 150,000 per year and barred Asian immigration.

It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the national-origin policy was eliminated. Since then more and more Asians immigrated to the U.S. to join their families and to work in various professions. Today, Asian Americans make up 4.6 percent of the population (about 14.6 million people). We are one of the fastest growing racial/ethnic groups (in terms of percentage increase) in the U.S.

Asian Americans have been seen as perpetual foreigners in the U.S. because of the history of racism. The myth of “model minority” and internalized racism make it difficult for some of the Asian Americans to speak up for undocumented Asians. The sense of shame surrounding the issue of illegality and undocumented status further compounds the problems of mobilizing the Asian American community.

Yet speak we must. These undocumented workers work hard, pay their taxes, and contribute to our society. The Bible teaches us to care for those aliens and strangers among us. In a parable in Matthew 25, Jesus said that whatever you did for the least of these, you did it to me. Let us heed the call and stand in solidarity with those who are voiceless and afraid to speak.