Asian American Immigration in the Age of Trump

Deepa Fernandes, Stewart Kwoh, and Ahilan Arulanantham discuss the implications of Donald Trump's presidency on relations with Asia and Asian Americans. (46 min., 10 sec.)

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which initially included permanent residents (also known as green card holders). The act was in line with Trump’s promises to aggressively curtail both legal and illegal immigration to the country. He’s already made several moves related to these pledges including hastening deportations, publicizing crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, and drawing plans to scale back the number of skilled worker visas. While much Trump’s focus has been on immigrants from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries, Asian immigrants also have a lot at stake.

“I think there's tremendous fear in immigrant communities as a result of the election,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney and legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California, who defends immigrants facing detention and deportation.

Arulanantham, who was speaking on a panel at Asia Society in Los Angeles about Asian Americans in the time of Trump, said that the situation was already bad for many immigrants under Barack Obama. During his presidency, more than 2.5 million people were deported — more than under any other president in U.S. history. This was enabled in part by immigration laws signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, limited avenues for their defense, and enabled long-term detentions during pending cases.

“It was hard to imagine any coherent legal position that could get more extreme with respect to the rights of immigrant detainees to due process,” Arulanantham said, adding that there are currently about 40,000 immigrants being held in detention facilities, about half of which are asylum seekers.

Stewart Kwoh is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles, a non-profit civil rights organization that provides legal services and advocacy for Asian Americans. He said that many Asian Americans are particularly concerned by Trump’s early moves against immigration since about two-thirds of this demographic are foreign-born. There are also currently an estimated 1.5 million undocumented Asian immigrants in the United States and another 1.7 million on waiting lists to immigrate legally. “So there's a great sensitivity [among Asian Americans] that America is great because of our immigrants,” Kwoh said. “Many in this group have family members that are undocumented or are among those on waiting lists.”

If more undocumented immigrants are deported and those seeking legal immigration are thwarted, it could have major demographic implications for the country. China and India have both already surpassed Mexico as the top sources of new immigrants to the United States, and the overall Asian American population has gone from roughly 1.5 million in 1970 to nearly 20 million. “We didn't do it by having a lot of babies,” Kwoh said. “We had a lot of immigration. So if both legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants aren’t treated well, the future of Asian Americans becomes a question.”

In the above video Kwoh and Arulanantham discuss other immigration concerns among Asian Americans, the political implications for Democrats and Republicans, and an apparent uptick in hate crimes.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.