We are a country driven by the belief that the future is before us, yet we constantly attempt to hold on to the traditions, heritages, and customs of old. In many ways, the American immigrant story captures this idea perfectly: Our immigration system over time has welcomed people from around the world while systematically excluding and expelling those whom we fear because they are different.
June is Immigrant Heritage Month. Notably, June 30th of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which created the current family-based immigration system. With the passage of that law, the U.S. finally dismantled racist national origin quotas and the remaining vestiges of the Chinese Exclusion Act, creating the vibrant and diverse communities that we know today.
The current administration’s continuing attack on immigrants has been inhumane and betrays the values that America represents. Nowhere is this more apparent than in President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. This announcement created a crisis for close to 800,000 young people in the program and potentially 400,000 more immigrants who are or would be eligible for relief. Although the courts have told the Department of Homeland Security to accept renewal applications for DACA, appeals are pending, and no new applications are being accepted.
Under DACA, children and young adults cannot be deported if they meet certain criteria. Broadly speaking, those criteria include being enrolled in school, having graduated from either high school or having a GED equivalent, being enlisted in the military, meeting certain age requirements with respect to when an individual came to the U.S., and having no convictions for felonies, “significant misdemeanors,” or multiple offenses. A DACA recipient can get a work permit and work legally in the United States, but DACA does not provide a path to citizenship or legal status.
Another category of young, undocumented immigrants often discussed are the DREAMers. The term DREAMer refers to undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act was introduced in 2001. This legislation, which would provide relief to undocumented immigrants beyond DACA, has yet to pass Congress and be signed into law despite overwhelming support by the public and members of Congress in both political parties.
Typically, discussions and stories about DACA recipients and DREAMers have focused on the Latino population. And perhaps properly so, given that the large majority of DACA recipients and DREAMers are Latino. However, this singular narrative obscures the large number of undocumented Asian immigrants in the United States — about 1.6 million. Of the 1.2 million immigrants who were eligible for DACA, 120,000 were Asian. These immigrants are from all parts of Asia, with significant numbers from Korea, China, and India.
For these reasons, Asian American civil rights organizations have focused on urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act as soon as possible. Polls consistently show the vast majority of Americans — over 80 percent — agree that DREAMers should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and have a path to citizenship. Studies show that deporting DREAMers will result in a loss of $430 billion to the American economy over the next 10 years.
Dangerously, the immigration debate has expanded beyond DACA and DREAMers to an attack on the current immigration system itself, and particularly on laws that allow family unification. Several proposals introduced by the Trump administration and anti-immigrant conservatives would reduce immigration by over 50 percent and virtually gut the family unification system that currently exists.
To make matters worse, the administration has suggested that a path to citizenship for DREAMers be tied to reductions in family immigration. Most Asian American advocates agree that such proposals amount to blackmail, since it was the administration that chose to end DACA in 2017 and block the DREAM Act during the 2018 budget negotiations, thus creating a crisis to be used as leverage.
Over 90 percent of Asian Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants. More than 60 percent of Asian Americans came through the family-based immigration system created by the Immigration and Nationality Act. Thus, proposed cuts to that system would have a dramatic and harmful effect.
These demands also would dramatically curtail future Asian immigration to the U.S. and make America a less attractive place to work or study because immigrants would know they cannot reunite with their families. Fundamentally, the U.S. cannot grow as a country without immigrants.
For the last 50 years, the face of America has changed because of increased immigration from Asia, Latin and South America, and Africa. That change may concern some, but America’s strength is in its ability to evolve constantly. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that evolution was the result of immigrants from European countries including Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland. Now, while immigrants come from a greater diversity of countries, their contributions continue to be what makes America the envy of the world.
People still want to come to this country to create opportunities, to innovate, and to celebrate freedom. By embracing DREAMers specifically and immigrants generally, the U.S. would ensure that the American spirit will continue to flourish, grow, and renew.
Gregg Orton is the National Director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). NCAPA is a coalition of 35 national Asian Pacific American organizations that serves to represent the interests of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and to provide a national voice for the communities’ concerns.
John C. Yang, JD, is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, a national nonprofit. Their mission is to advance civil and human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all.
This article ran in our May 2018 issue.