Undocumented Asian immigrants shy away from revealing their status

The World

Amy Lin was 12 when she and her mom left her abusive dad in Taiwan and came to California. What she didn't know is that they'd done so on a tourist visa.

Her mom got work as a nanny. Lin went to school. Then Lin turned old enough to drive and mentioned the prospect of getting a driver's license to her mom. "She was like, you just can’t do it. And she wouldn’t even tell me why," Lin says.

A few months later, Lin brought up college. But like many immigrants without the authorization to live in the US, they had had overstayed their tourist visas. "She finally sat me down and said, 'Look, you’re undocumented,'" Lin remembers.

That's not an uncommon story for Asian immgrants: Advocates say they often hide their situation from their children. "People just don’t talk about their immigration status or how they came to the US," said Anthony Ng, an immigrant rights activist from the Philippines. He says Asian immigrants often feel shame and embarrassment around not having legal status. 

And that means it's hard to convince them to get help. You can see that in participation rates for a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that lets young immigrants avoid deportation. Introduced two years, DACA allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to reveal their status to government in return for a guaranteed respite from Citizenship and Immigration Service that can be renewed every two years.

DACA was designed as a sort of stopgap after the failure of the DREAM Act, but many immigrants were skeptical of the program because it required them to make their statuses public — not to mention the lack of a path to legal residence in the United States. Still, many immigrants flocked to DACA, particuarly Latinos.

"There is such a high degree of visibility of the DACA program in the Spanish-speaking media that it’s hard not to know about the program if you’re in that community," says Margie McHugh, an analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

But that's not the case in Asian communities"Overall, we see application rates for Asian applicants is fairly low," McHugh says. Just a quarter of eligible Koreans and Filipinos have even applied for DACA.

McHugh said this could be due to the stigma around lack of legal status in Asian cultures, combined with a sense that DACA is geared more toward Latinos. DACA has also been controversial, with Republican lawmakers saying deferred action is simply amnesty — a charged topic that damaged chances for wider immigration reform — by another name.

McHugh points out that Latinos more widely and easily — thanks to their shared Spanish — discuss immigration, and also get most of the attention from immigration authorities. "Since the vast majority of deportations are of Latinos, that might be why the population might not feel as urgent a need to come forward and apply," she suggests

Tiffany Panlilio, a legal advocate for Asian Americans Advocating Justice in Los Angeles, also sees those differences in her work. She says that when she's tried to start informational clinics at Los Angeles schools, Latino parents jump on board.

She describes the typical reactions from Latino families: "'Yeah, we need a DACA clinic for our kid. We’ll provide the Spanish translations.' But when it came to Asian parent leaders, they gave us the vibe that, 'This is not our problem.'"

Chinese immigrants appear to be the least interested in the program, their application rates among the lowest. "Chinese families are typically conservative and holding onto family unity," says Amy Lin, the would-be driver and college student. "And something like DACA, which [is] seemingly putting families in jeopardy, is not something that a lot of parents are willing to take." 

In fact, even though Lin wanted to attend college, she didn't want apply for DACA and put her mother at risk. In a departure from the norm in Chinese families, it was Lin’s mom who pushed her to join. Lin says they fought for months over the danger of exposing her mother's undocumented status — and the difficulty of coming up with the $465 application fee.

"But my mom is very courageous in that she thought that having some sort of document is still better than nothing," Lin says. After a few months, her mother won out. Now Lin is a student at UCLA and is no longer afraid of deportation.

Many more immigrants may get this kind of temporary relief. Within weeks, President Barack Obama is expected to announce new immigration measures. Lin’s hoping he’ll alleviate the constant fear of deportation for millions of immigrants — her mom among them.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.