Where Are the Asian Voices in the Immigration Debate?

Candace Chen with the National Asian Pacific Women's Forum speaks at a protest in San Francisco's Chinatown in April, 2013. The protest was part of a national day of action in support of comprehensive immigration reform. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

President Barack Obama announces his executive action tonight, likely granting temporary protection from deportation for some undocumented immigrants. Latinos have been at the forefront of calls for immigration reform. But undocumented Asian immigrants also have a lot riding on the president's announcement.

That much was clear Tuesday night in San Francisco, where about 20 Asian immigrants and their family members streamed into a legal clinic. Asian Law Caucus immigration attorney Anoop Prasad describes who's here.

"People facing deportation, people in detention, applying for citizenship," Prasad says.  "Basically the whole range of issues impacting Asian-American immigrants."

 Prasad says his clients have taken the brunt of stepped-up deportation by the Obama administration in recent years.

"A lot of time these families are getting torn apart, where half the family is here in the U.S. and half the family is outside the U.S. and barred from returning," Prasad says. "The sort of heartbreak that we see has been staggering."

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Unlike Latinos, Asian immigrants are rarely the focus of the immigration debate. But a new report from the Migration Policy Institute finds that California has more than 400,000 immigrants from Asia who are here illegally. So why the low profile?

Prasad says it's partly due to a kind of shame the community feels for not living up to the stereotype of Asian immigrants as successful and self-sufficient.

"To come and say, you know, 'I'm living in poverty, I'm undocumented and I'm facing deportation.' There's this sort of embarrassment or shame with, you know, 'Everyone else is making it, why am I not making it?'"

Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate dean of the Public Policy School at UC Riverside. He says all these factors, plus a reluctance of Asians to rock the boat, become a self-fullfilling prophecy.

"The net effect of this tends to be less attention by news media and politicians, but also less mobilization by Asian-Americans," Ramakrishnan says.

One notable exception occurred a year ago in San Francisco's Chinatown. Obama was giving a speech on immigration reform when he was suddenly heckled by a 24-year-old South Korean student. Ju Hong confronted the president and demanded he take executive action to stop the deportations.

Standing just feet from Obama, Hong led a few students in chants of  "Stop deportations" and "Yes, we can."

Another student there that day was Dean Santos, whose  parents brought him to the U.S. from the Philippines illegally when he was 12 years old.  A few years ago, he decided to speak out after getting caught shoplifting.

"I was in deportation proceedings," remembers Santos.  "I had nothing else to lose. That's why I eventually spoke out."

It's a fear immigrants living in the shadows have -- that even a relatively minor brush with the law can lead to deportation.

Santos is excited by Obama's executive action, but he worries it won't go far enough.

"People need to realize that there's still gonna be a lot of people left out in this," Santos said.  "It's just a Band-Aid solution."

We'll hear how big a Band-Aid when Obama addresses the nation tonight.

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