Japanese Americans and Immigration: Where We Fit

by Guest Contributor Kristin Fukushima

When asked what I do as Policy Coordinator for the Japanese American Citizens League, my answer of, “mostly immigration,” surprises folks. I can’t totally blame them, given that mainstream media seems to think the “immigration problem” is rooted squarely at our border down south.

Explaining why I, an Asian American, am involved in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is simple enough. To break it down quickly: 63% of the AAPI community is foreign-born; immigrants from the Asian Pacific region face the longest backlogs (6 of 10 countries with the longest backlogs); 10% of the undocumented population is AAPI, etc, etc. Explaining why I, a yonsei (4th generation Japanese American), do immigrant rights advocacy – that’s a bit harder. My yonsei peers and I are pretty far removed from the immigrant experience, so the relevancy isn’t immediately clear. And why should JAs care about CIR – where do we fit in the debate?

Well, JAs have been involved in the fight for fair and humane immigration reform for decades. But now we’ve disassociated ourselves from the racism and xenophobia that Japanese and other Asian immigrants faced – exclusion laws against immigrating, naturalizing or owning land, as well as struggle to overcome it all (such as gaining the right to naturalize).

But more than our history of fighting for immigration and civil rights, JAs like me – yonsei from the suburbs – need to recognize this is our fight. Our community is affected too – 30% of the JA community is foreign-born. To many yonsei, this number is shocking. To shin-nisei (new 2nd generation), it’s hardly a surprise. While talking to some shin-nisei friends, they explain how the immigration system is so broken, even if you’re a Japanese businessperson, the system is still absurdly difficult to navigate. One may be lucky enough to get a visa through work, but the process of then procuring that green card requires years of waiting and jumping through many, many hoops. If you’re low-income, unskilled, non-English speaking and/or undocumented, the system is just that much more intimidating.

So where do JAs fit into the immigration debate? Well first of all, it’s about remembering where we come from, and our family’s experiences. The narrative for immigrants remains the same – folks just want a better life for their family and children. And JAs now can be an example of how immigration helps shape this country with new ideas, culture, and flavor. It’s also about solidarity – recognizing that if we truly consider ourselves part of this umbrella we call the AAPI community then we must similarly take on the issues in our community. And finally, it’s about reframing the way we think about the JA community – recognizing there’s this part of our community that the larger portion generally overlooks, and including new immigrant narratives and needs into the larger community. One of these needs is CIR and bilingual services and assistance for immigrants, and we can’t be oblivious anymore. Comprehensive immigration reform must happen now, in 2010 – and I expect to see my JA brothers and sisters in the trenches for the fight.

Kristin Fukushima is Policy Coordinator for the Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, located in Little Tokyo of Los Angeles. JACL is a part of the Reform Immigration FOR American campaign, and also co-chairs the LA AAPI Immigration Taskforce.