Chinese immigrant and new American citizen Yi Shu sheds a tear after taking the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony on April 9, 2013 in New York City. 
John Moore/Getty

Asian Americans want immigration reform, too

Updated
By Richard Lui

If a budget can pass the House quickly, then anything’s possible–even immigration reform. Like the budget, it would need concerted Democratic and Republican support. Certain GOP voters expect not only fiscal conservatism, but also immigration reform.

study released Wednesday by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) of one group shows 67% of Republican respondents support immigration reform. These numbers rise above the average because they are from an ethnic group with arguably the largest stake in the debate.

You might think we’re talking about Latino Americans. The study–conducted in New York, New Jersey, and Virginia–is actually of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Why do AAPIs share this Latino American view? When it comes to unauthorized immigrants, an estimated 1.3 million are from Asia.  And 74% of voting age AAPI’s are born abroad, the largest proportion of any racial group. A similar number speak English as a second language.  

One of those is Ju Hong, the heckler at President Obama’s speech two weeks ago in San Francisco.  Many remember his plea, “I need your help. My family will be separated on Thanksgiving. Please use your executive order. You have the power to stop deportation.”  Hong is unauthorized, brought here by his parents from South Korea when he was 11.

Community leaders say Hong’s outburst was not quite what they wanted. Some were angry. This was a rare occurrence, after all—a presidential event aimed at the AAPI community.  Having a heckler on the dais behind the president on national TV didn’t seem the ticket to good impressions.

But the president’s staff could not have planned it better. Hong helped reinforce the administration’s points on immigration reform: that it’s not just a Latino story. It’s Irish. It’s Canadian. It’s everybody. In the end, the crowd cheered the president’s response to Hong. 

Hong the heckler also helped the AAPI community. He showed it has chutzpah. It has a voice. It stands up for itself. The video of the incident doesn’t show his face, and some Asian Americans wish it did. I can’t remember the last time a face of Asian descent was found yelping at a major immigration event. 

Researcher Karthick Ramakrishnan of National Asian American Survey (NAAS) found only 1.4% of the AAPIs he surveyed months before the 2012 election believed immigration reform was the most important problem. They ranked it eighth out of eight issues.

But the community does care.  More than half of respondents from the AALDEF study say immigration reform would affect their family. Some are here illegally, others want to reunite with family members still living abroad. And with three out of four AAPI voters born abroad, immigration is arguably the most definitive experience in their lives. Common sense says immigration is important.

Why this inconsistency in polling? The community is evolving, becoming more vocal, more politically educated, more engaged. But there’s also a unique AAPI complexity. Most AAPIs regardless of generation are culturally built to favor jobs and wallet economics first. 

And if the respondents are second generation or more, telling a stranger over the phone that immigration reform is important isn’t easy. The topic reminds them of assimilation challenges they faced growing up: being treated as an immigrant, as someone not from here.

And if the respondents are first generation, they often don’t speak English well and don’t like open-ended questions. So pollsters are hung-up on or get spotty responses less than close to the respondents’ heart. For example, when family visas were mentioned in NAAS polling, the percentage of those who said immigration was important rose from 1.4% to 38%.

That’s why the president’s 2011 subtle moves on immigration reform resonated. The signing of the executive order to help DREAMers or children brought here by their parents illegally showed the AAPI community that the president understood them. 

Come election day, 73% of AAPI voters rewarded him for that, trailing only African-Americans in their support. Asian American votes swung Virginia and Florida to the Obama camp. The AAPI vote percentage for Obama in those states was greater than his margin of victory; in other swing states like Nevada, the story was similar.  Without AAPI votes, the president might have lost. 

This happened despite AAPI community insiders quietly saying they were upset that President Obama wasn’t engaging them. They would wonder why despite living in Asia, growing up in a very vibrant Asian American state–Hawaii–he didn’t embrace them more. The heckler event was the president’s first in a non-election year specifically for the AAPI community since Obama entered office in 2008.

It comes down to peril.  Despite great progress by the Asian American Congressional Caucus (CAPAC), there is little political price for failing to engage the AAPI community. Asian American groups can do better, speaking out more energetically, organizing its disparate, numerous communities to sharpen the message and increase clout. 

Business can do better. 

And Democrats and Republicans can do better. In election 2012, some leaders say the Obama campaign did little community engagement. The Romney campaign did more outreach than previous Republican campaigns, but Romney’s comments on immigration may have diluted that effort.

With the atypical quick passage of a House budget this week, the mood on immigration reform could be changing.  It could find passage as April 2014 approaches, after Congressional primaries have finished. Lawmakers are likely to remember that failing on immigration reform could alienate a large block of swing voters, Latino and Asian Americans alike.

Watch Richard Lui discuss what 2014 holds for the immigration movement:

Asian Americans want immigration reform, too

Updated