Last month, President Obama used executive action to reshape the country's immigration policy. The President's action means that millions of undocumented people will not face deportation and many will be able to work legally. However, these actions won't help the 7 million undocumented people who don't qualify under administration relief. We need comprehensive immigration reform and only Congress can do that. So that leaves us to ask - who does this policy benefit and will this help undocumented people come out of the shadows?
In a wide-ranging conversation with PowerPAC+'s Amy Chen, Annette Wong, Immigrant Rights Program Manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights organization that has advanced equality, created coalitions and addressed the needs of marginalized communities for over forty years, shares what's at stake for the Asian American immigrant community.
Amy Chen: How does Chinese Affirmative Action work to protect Asian Pacific Islander (API) immigrant rights?
Annette Wong: We work on immigrant rights from multiple fronts. We have done advocacy on the state, local national level on policies that protect and empower immigrant communities. We have fought and advocated for access to services, equal education opportunities for immigrant students and job opportunities for immigrant workers. We provide low-income, monolingual Chinese speakers and community members legal service referrals and help them find jobs. We host biweekly outreach sessions in Chinatown. And we partner with other non-profit organizations to provide basic community outreach- putting ourselves out there as an available resource. Finally, we try to do media work because we know that about 70% of immigrants still receive their information from ethnic news media. We want to be sure that people are getting the information they need in their language.
What issues matter most to the API immigrant community?
The threat of deportation and detention is a huge issue in the API community. We feel that there’s a myth that there are no Asians in detention, that there are no Asians being deported and that’s just not true. We know that of the 11 million undocumented people in the country an estimated 1.3 million are undocumented API’s, so 1 in 8 Asian immigrants are undocumented. Within that 1.3 million the largest percentage of API’s that are undocumented are Chinese. We don’t want to see families separated anymore. Also, CAA has always worked on language access. Language can be huge to accessing services or getting an education and CAA was instrumental in passing the San Francisco Language Access Ordinance. We have a network of folks that works with the city that the ordinance is carried out. There’s probably dozens of languages and dialects that are spoken in San Francisco, and we want to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.
Where do you see the opportunity for work across race and community on immigration reform?
It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That’s how CAA views our work when it comes to cross-collaboration. We want to work in a ways that benefit all of our communities and doesn’t hit one in expense of the other.
CAA is one of the founding members of the San Francisco Immigration and Legal Network, a collaborative of service providers that offers legal services and community education. We partner together to leverage the expertise of the legal community and the communities that are focused on community education to get the best services and knowledge around immigration and legal issues out there as possible. This is collaborative is very diverse. We work with folks from Latino, Asian, Arab, African communities. We really see our struggles as immigrant communities as one united struggle. Whether you’re from Mexico or China, Philippines or Africa, we all have to deal with the same broken immigration system.
We have found that working together is much more effective and impactful than doing our own thing in silos. Immigration impacts people in all aspects of life - from access to housing to health services to education and language barriers and those are struggles that we address in our communities.
What are some of the social and identity issues that you see with API immigrants?
As Asian Americans there’s a lot of silence in the community around our immigration struggle and our history. While immigration is often painted as a Latino issue, oftentimes we forget how strongly rooted the Asian American community is in the immigrant struggle. We forget about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Or the detention conditions on Angel Island. Our communities have lived through that history, yet we are still living in the shadows. Whether it’s Paper Sons who came unauthorized or without documents, there’s still a lot of fear. We ask people to come in and tell their story, but they pushback and say they don’t want us to see their face. So part of our work is helping people feel safe and come out of the shadows.
Speaking of coming out of the shadows, what does Obama's recently announced executive actions on immigration mean for the API immigrant community?
We think this is a positive step forward, but we also acknowledge that there are still 7 million undocumented people who are not going to qualify for administrative relief. We feel there is a lot more to do and we’re going to continue fighting.
In the reactions that I heard at our watch party or the press conference the next morning, there were a lot of people that said they’re parents would qualify but their friend’s parents wouldn’t qualify. It’s definitely not all or nothing in the APA community -- just like in any other community. Broad strokes, there were other things were included in the President’s executive action that address visa backlogs and the waiting period for family separation. These are things that the API community is very invested in.
This was a very low voter turnout year across the board for people of color. What could change this for the key 2016 presidential election year, particularly the API communities?
A lot of it is believing in our political power. For Asian Americans, we now make up 5% of the American population, of course, not all 5% can vote, but if we were to believe in our political power that would encourage us to use that power. One of the ways to harness our power is by voting and if people can’t vote, there’s voter education and community outreach.