Asian Immigrants, Demographic Shifts and the Role of Immigration Policy

This report by the Pew Research Center is making the facebook and social media sphere rounds today. However, far more than being an accounting of demographic shifts in our country, the press release that is getting printed in major sources such as the NY Times and the LA Times is far from news. It is a tired re-hashing of racist stereotypes and fear mongering, wedge driving, and the like. Not surprising, unfortunately, for outlets such as these to be printing such problematic drivel, but still, it’s so far from the basic standards of journalistic integrity that my journalist friends aspire to uphold. ColorLines reports a less problematic version of the facts here, but leaves open the question as to why and how the demographic shifts are happening.

Undocumented, Unafraid, and … Asian?

First, as the ColorLines article alludes to but doesn’t directly state, some Asians GROUPS also have the lowest rates formal education and the lowest incomes (by both HH and individual stats), and some of the highest rates of criminalization and incarceration in the US. The dominant media framing of the issue creates division in our own community as well as being a classic attempt to prevent us from uniting together with other groups – African and Latino migrants in particular – around immigration issues. Since these issues are also directly linked to criminalization and educational opportunity, there’s some important alliances to build, rather than to allow for division.

The population of undocumented students in the UCs is half Asian.

Immigration Policy and the Body Politic

If you look at the immigration laws under which the “skilled” labor is coming in, it’s the immigration policy system that is wack, that creates the openings by which so-called skilled labor enters. African migrants have some the highest formal education levels especially with advanced degrees, also because of US immigration policies, but do not realize the economic or social benefits per se of these higher levels of education, which has everything to do with anti-Black racism in the US.

It’s a complicated mix of national relationship to US imperialist (geopolitical as well as economic) interests in people’s countries of origin, as well as the history and geography of racial hierarchy here, which creates the opportunity structure for migrants once they get here. But population of people who are “let in”? That’s all policy. If we shared a border with China or India, or a small sea, or had a land route access, who would be the largest number of unauthorized migrants?

Wedge Issues and Model Minority Stereotypes

I would say the attempt to divide us preexists contemporary immigration debates. it originates in the model minority myth which was pretty much created in the late 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and popularized in the 1980s as the counterpoint to the welfare queen (black) myth during the Reagan era to justify cuts to state support programs and also the welfare-to-work programs that gutted real support. As you may know, the function of these racist stereotypes was to take attention off of a system of impoverishment and exclusion, racialized, gendered but also extremely class-biased, and to blame individuals for their own fates, which were in some ways overdetermined by structural considerations.

As immigration policies selectively allowed moneyed and more educated migrants entry, and because immigration is a hot button political issue, the less that people like Jose Antonio Vargas or the Liberian undocumented PhD in economics who works as a small business owner and dance teacher or the undocumented Chinese-Korean Peruvian DREAM student can get heard, not just in the mainstream media but also in the ethnic media, the less likely that those communities will join together in public protest. The more that Latinos can (seem to) be pitted against Asians in the immigration debate, the more it will seem that Latinos are asking for “special treatment” – and therefore, undeserving of the kinds of policy change and practical change that advocates, activists and organizers have been asking and demanding – based on rights and dignity – for decades.

It’s a classic move called the wedge, and the question is not why to create the cleave or the wedge, but rather, what function and whose interests it serves, and also, what it does to the political-cultural opportunity structure. In this weirdo moment of prosecutorial discretion for some undocumented young people who have graduated high school, earned their GEDs and/or served in the military but only if they can prove 5 years continuous residence … you could say this is part of the move to close off possible alliances to what a powerful immigrant rights movement would look like in the next few months and years, if we did indeed take the example from the DREAM students by engaging in powerful, targeted, strategic actions designed to highlight the contradictions in the points of intervention in these systems. If the engineers, doctors and college students saw common cause with the gardeners, domĂ©sticas, seamstresses, and street kids, we’d be in some powerful company.


1. Thanks to the comrade Kenji Liu for these links:

  • ASPIRE, a formation of the Asian Law Caucus, put this video out 2 years ago featuring the voices of 5 undocumented Asian young people here.
  • Here’s the source for the statistic for 40-44% of AB540 students in UC system (California) being Asian (55-60% in the 2005-2006 academic year): Gonzales, Roberto (April 2009). Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students. Washington, D.C.: College Board Advocacy. p. 10.
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