Not Your Model Minority: Asian Americans and the Immigration Fight

By Guest Contributor S. Nadia Hussain, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

Gregory Cendana arrested in Washington DC during Oct 8th’s action for immigration reform. Photo by Soyun Park/AAPI Immigration Table.

On October 8, Gregory Cendana, the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) was arrested, along with two hundred other activists and eight members of Congress in our nation’s capitol. In photos from that day, he is seen being led away in handcuffs with a pride flag tied around his neck like superhero cape and a handwritten t-shirt — with the words “Not your Model Minority” scrawled on the front. Cendana is Asian American and his actions that day stood as a testament to the diverse communities that are impacted by the lack of immigration reform.

Immigration is often framed as an issue impacting mostly Latino populations. According to the Pew Hispanic Center — though the modern immigration wave from Latin America has made up 50% of US immigration, migration from Asia makes up a substantial 27%. Outside of Mexico, the leading countries of origin of immigrants are India, the Philippines and China.  Asians make up 13% of the US undocumented population. The US Office of Homeland security estimates that as of 2009, the largest undocumented Asian populations are 270,000 immigrants from the Philippines, 200,000 from India, 200,000 from Korea and 120,000 from China.

The stereotype of Asians as the model minority makes invisible the stories of the individuals and families behind these numbers. While immigration reform stalls within legislative chambers, activists and community members have come out in droves to highlight its impact on their communities. The October 8th action was part of a coordinated campaign around immigration reform launched by eight national AAPI organizations.

It was also the third immigration action taken within the last six months in D.C. There was the protest less than a month ago, where roughly 200 women protested and over 100 were arrested as part of as mass demonstration. Before that, there was an organized protest on August 1, where over 46 labor leaders, immigrant advocates, environmental activists, people of faith, and DREAMers blocked the street in front of Capitol Hill while 300 allies and four members of Congress cheered  them on.

Yet in light of the Government shutdown, many are afraid that immigration efforts will be stalled indefinitely. “Have our congressional leaders forgotten that this is a nation of immigrants?” Cendana asks. “America is a nation of values, founded on the idea that all men and women are created equal. How we treat new immigrants reflects our commitment to the values that define America and how we define American.”

These words and actions haven’t escaped the attention of the President. The day after reaching a deal to re-open the government, President Obama vowed to pursue a House vote on immigration reform: “The majority of Americans think this is the right thing to do” said the President, “and it’s sitting there waiting for the House to pass it … But let’s not leave this problem to keep festering…This can and should get done by the end of this year.”

The ongoing pressure from these communities may help ensure that the President delivers on this resolve and that Congress realizes that the immigration issue won’t disappear — shutdown or no shutdown. Activists and officials like the ones who protested and were arrested last week will be there to ensure that it doesn’t.

S. Nadia Hussain is a Bangladeshi American activist, poet, blogger and photographer with a passion for human rights work and progressive politics. She lives in Oakland, CA, where she works with refugee and emerging API communities.

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