Living in the ICE Age

California's undocumented youth speak up, act out

“The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, but it’s also a nation that loves to debate immigration policy.” So observed Bill Ong Hing, an immigration law expert at USF Law School, before a crowd of undocumented Asian and Latino students, young people, and community members at the Asia Society on March 20th. While most media attention on immigration focuses on Latinos, political intrigue on Capitol Hill, or the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico, this panel struck a new course, focusing on the experiences of four young activists who work with undocumented Asians. The evening made clear that young undocumented people have stepped up to take action, bringing new life to an old debate and shifting the center of gravity away from Washington, DC policy circles toward undocumented strongholds like California.

The room itself testified to the generational shift, with young Asian activists mixing with an audience composed largely of their peers – a very different look from the policy debates we see on CSPAN. The Asia Society’s offices in San Francisco are located across the street from a non-descript building that is nonetheless well-known by all immigrants: the field office of the Department of Homeland Security, including the feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Panelists and audience members seemed to take it in stride.

The activists on the panel were galvanized into action in part by the dramatic increase in deportations -- now nearing 2 million --by the Obama administration. The deportations stand in stark contrast to President Obama's promises of comprehensive reform that date to the earliest days of his campaign.

Activist Ju Hong is a case in point. A UC Berkeley graduate and undocumented immigrant from Korea, he thrust himself into the national debate when he interrupted President Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser last November, criticizing his inaction on the issue. “I was sick and tired of the politicians saying the same thing and not doing the real actions and supporting our community,” said Hong at the program. “I would do it again.”

Hong’s first brush with the threat of deportation came when his mother forbade him from calling the police after a burglary, out of fear that they would be separated and deported. Many undocumented immigrants are an easy mark for predators – thieves, landlords, employers – who are confident their victims won’t fight back.

To be sure, the Obama administration has made real progress on the issue. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memo issued by the administration in 2012 provides a reprieve for young undocumented immigrants who have pursued education or military service. Indeed, DACA may be one reason why young undocumented voices have become so prominent in the last two years. It is also why Ju Hong will be able to visit his ailing 90 year-old grandmother in Korea this summer for the first time in 13 years. But many undocumented remain frustrated at the slow pace of reform and fearful about the legal limbo.

Despite some fleeting signs of progress this winter, prospects for immigration reform in Washington look as dim as ever today. Grassroots organizations like the Asian Law Caucus, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and Educators for Fair Consideration – all represented on the panel – have increasingly taken up the fight for undocumented immigrant rights, including students and young people.

Asian Students Promoting Immigration Rights through Education (ASPIRE) is a notable new group where these efforts are coming together. In the blog “Undocumented and Unafraid”, student authors “come out” – the debt to the gay rights movement is explicit – about their undocumented status, many for the first time, despite wracking anxiety over their families, job prospects, and community status.

Even with its large and growing Asian and Asian-American population today, the U.S. has a decidedly mixed record on Asian immigration. Notorious past measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and WWII Japanese detention camps have given way to a more complex present, where the economic gains of many Chinese, Japanese, Indian or other immigrants are both celebrated and sanitized by labels like “model minority” and the “good immigrant”. As panelists Anoop Prasad and Grace Lee quickly pointed out, such labels can not only divide Asian “successes” from other Asian stories, but also drive a wedge between Asians and blacks, Latinos, and other communities. They are as much about class as about race.

Despite the example of organizations like ASPIRE, most undocumented Asians are not public about their status, due to fear, uncertainty, shame, or other concerns. Panelist Katherine Gin commented, “I hope that all DREAMers can have the courage and confidence to speak out… [and realize] that their voice has meaning, power, and deserve to be heard”.

Whether the impact will be felt in Washington, and whether all undocumented immigrants will be able to safely come out in the future, California already feels like a very different place for undocumented Asians due to these changes.

For more background on undocumented Asian immigrants, check out our overview here.