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Overhauling Immigration: Asians Matter Too


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, if you're planning something special this Valentine's Day, here's another question you might want to ask that special someone first: What's your credit score? In our Money Coach today, we'll hear about why some singles are asking this question pretty early in the dating game these days.

But first, we want to talk more about those immigration reform proposals that came out of the White House and the Senate last week. There was a lot of talk about how the GOP needed something to connect with the growing number of Latino voters and those who soon will be voters, but we are reminded that Latinos are not the only people affected by this country's dysfunctional immigration system.

About one million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. are from Asian countries and backgrounds. So today, we want to examine what the proposals mean for them. To find out more, we've called once again upon Deepa Iyer. She is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT. That's a non-partisan advocacy group for South Asians.

She's here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

DEEPA IYER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us is Miriam Yeung. She is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. That's a progressive-leaning group that focuses on issues of particular concern to Asian and Pacific Islander women. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Miriam, thank you so much for joining us.

MIRIAM YEUNG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And they're both members of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. That's a coalition of different Asian and Pacific Islander groups. And they've been taking a look at this. So Deepa, let me start with you. I mentioned earlier that of the 11 million people who are estimated to be undocumented currently living here, about a million are Asians.

We don't generally think of Asian-Americans as part of this group, but just tell us, you know, what are some of their circumstances? How is it that it happens? This group is actually not small.

IYER: Right. Well, I think there's this misperception that when you think about immigration, Latinos are undocumented immigrants and Asians are high-skilled labor. And that's clearly not true, because Asian-Americans interface with every aspect of the immigration system, as you said. From an undocumented immigrant's perspectives, we are looking at about a million or so of the 11 million being undocumented.

And these are circumstances of people who may have overstayed their visas, their temporary visas. These are people who are doing immigrant labor. They are working as waiters. They might be working as janitors. They might be domestic workers. They're also people who might be high-skilled workers who lost their jobs and don't have any way to regularize their status.

So we're talking about a range of people - family members, grandmothers to immigrant laborers to high skilled workers - who are part of this undocumented community.

MARTIN: But we also understand, though, that Asian countries have the largest backlogs when it comes to visas. Why is that?

IYER: So over half of the family members who are waiting in line to get visas through family members are actually relatives of Asian-Americans. And the reason that is, is because we've got a family visa system that's just not working. There are caps per country in terms of the number of visas that are afforded, and people have been waiting in line for years and years and years to avail themselves of these visas.

So we're looking at people from India, China, Philippines waiting between 10 to 20 years sometimes to be reunited with their family members, to set up roots in this country, and to strengthen their ties to this country.

MARTIN: Miriam, is there anything that you saw in proposals from either the so-called Gang of Eight in the Senate - that's a bipartisan group of four Democrats, four Republicans in the Senate - or the White House that would affect Asians more than other racial groups?

YEUNG: I think the family reunification proponents in each of those proposals would be a huge thing for our community.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip, you know, to that end of President Obama talking about the family reunification issue. Here it is.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've got to bring our legal immigration system into the 21st century, because it no longer reflects the realities of our time. For example, if you are a citizen, you shouldn't have to wait years before your family is able to join you in America.

You shouldn't have to wait years.

MARTIN: Miriam, does your group have specific proposals around that? I mean, how would you want this to be addressed? Would it be to lift the quotas from different countries? Or how would it work?

YEUNG: I think that would be a start, and proposals like the Reuniting Families Act would lift the caps, would recycle caps that hadn't been used from other countries. But I do think streamlining and making the whole system more smooth and easy for our communities is what's going to be important.

I want to mention that in a project that my organization did. We did an opinion poll of Asian-Americans that was nationally representative, and did in nine Asian languages, plus English. Fifty-four percent of Asian-Americans indicate that this visa backlog is a serious or significant problem for their families, with about 40 percent of them saying it's very or fairly serious.

So you're talking about 40 percent, or one out of two Asian-American families having some personal impact with this broken family visa system.

MARTIN: Wait. When you're talking about a family, though, who are we talking about? We're not talking about spouses. Or is that correct? I mean, presumably, the line is shorter for spouses or - and for children. Or is it not? I mean, who are we talking about when we say family?

YEUNG: That's right. So the family visa system is only for immediate family, so spouses and children get first priority. And then we have siblings and other family members, usually not cousins or aunts. But really, we're talking about immediate family.

MARTIN: So are you telling me that people could literally wait years to be joined by their children?

YEUNG: Sometimes. I mean, we see that there are two problems with this. There's an administrative problem, right? So you file your paperwork, and the department just does not have enough people power to process the paperwork for you. So you may be waiting months to a year just for the administrative backlog.

And then if you come from a country that is large and there are many applicants, then you may be waiting based on this family cap. And each month, the department actually publishes a waiting list where you can see - based on the month that you submitted your application - how long you will have to wait.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how the recent immigration reform proposals would affect the undocumented Asian population living in the United States. That's about a million people of the 11 million people estimated to be currently undocumented living in the United States.

I'm speaking with Miriam Yeung from the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, and also Deepa Iyer of the South Asian Americans Leading Together. This so-called Gang of Eight proposal and the president also focused on supporting immigrants who choose to enter the stem fields, like science, technology, engineering and math.

So, Deepa, what about that? I mean, do you consider that a positive aspect of this? Or some people say perhaps not, because some people say that that contributes to a brain drain in these countries, which actually kind of depresses kind of the worldwide economic development, which actually fuels immigration. What's your take on this?

IYER: Well, we think that it's important to bring over people who are going to be entrepreneurs. You know, immigrant entrepreneurs are more likely to start companies in the innovation and software industries. They will hire workers. They will generate billions of dollars in sales, and we know this. So it is important to make sure that we're bringing over students. We're bringing over people to work for U.S. companies.

But at the same time, we also have to give them a path and a roadmap to get visas and to become citizens if they choose to do so - not just with high-skilled laborers, but also with unskilled labor. And so it's really important that we don't just kind of utilize and exploit labor, but that we give people a chance to set down roots and really contribute to our country here in America.

MARTIN: In the time that we have left, I'd like to sort of wheel it around. We've talked about why this is in the interest of the people who are currently in this limbo situation to address this. But I'd like to wheel it around in the time we have left and ask why you think it's in the interest of native-born Americans, or Americans who have been here of longer tenure, that these proposals go forward?

Because some people would argue, you know, why? Why is it? Yes, while people can kind of understand the pain of family separation, you know, other people argue, well, you know, that was a choice that people made. If they made a choice to come here out of status, then that's something you have to live with.

And there's the continuing argument about what effect that this large immigration flow has on the native population and their economic opportunities and their educational opportunities. So I would like to ask each of you to reflect on that in the time that we have left. Miriam, you want to start?

YEUNG: I identify as an immigrant. My family came when I was two years old. And we were able to sponsor my mother's family and, incidentally, you know, my partner is sick today and who took my kid to work but my aunt. Right?

So I think America is a nation that's of values and founded on the idea that we're all created equal, that we - no matter what we look like or where we come from, that this is a country of opportunity. So really, this is a moment of living true to our American values, or not.

MARTIN: So you think it's a values proposition?

YEUNG: That's one - I think that's the deepest, most common connection. There are, of course, other, I think, important aspects, and you know, even David Brooks from the New York Times has talked about the economic arguments for immigration and why we need a better system in immigration policy.

MARTIN: Deepa, what about you?

IYER: Well, you know, immigration is not a new story. Right? I mean, we have been in this country - we are a nation of immigrants, other than those who have been here, who are indigenous, and so it's really important for us not to look at this as something that's been just like a 10 to 20 year history of immigration.

And, through the course of our history I think we have indeed, as Miriam mentions, focused on the values of strengthening families, of making sure that we have people in this country who can contribute to our economy, who can set up businesses. Right. And so I think we have these values that we have had since time and so we need to make sure that we are staying true to those.

I too like Miriam, I'm an immigrant, moved here when I was 12, beneficiary of the family immigration, employment immigration system that my father availed himself of when he was an immigrant from India. And I can tell you that, you know, we are very firmly settled in this country and for us it's not a question of kind of having one foot here and one foot somewhere else. We are Americans and I think that all those, whether you're a DREAMer, whether you are a grandmother, whether you're a high skilled worker, whether you're a domestic worker, all these folks are part and parcel of our country and need to be given the same rights as everyone else.

MARTIN: That was Deepa Iyer, president and executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. Also with us, Miriam Young, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. They were both with us today.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

YEUNG: Thank you.

IYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.