03/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Asian Immigration: A Family Affair, A Chicago Perspective

Gross generalization alert: If there's one thing Hispanics hate, it's for people to assume they're all Mexican.

And if there's one thing Mexican-descended Hispanics hate, it's for people to assume they're all immigrants - and illegal ones at that.

And if there's one thing immigrants hate, it's for people to assume that the issue of illegal immigration is just a "Mexican problem."

And who could blame them? To look at the news coverage, the "broken immigration system" is primarily reported in the context of what it means to Latinos and their extended families, as if every single one of the "12 million" illegal immigrants in the U.S. came from Tijuana.

With the rhetoric heating up yet again I thought I'd talk to someone with an alternative view point on this whole immigration business, which is how I came to meet Karen Narasaki, the Asian American Justice Center's president and executive director.

AAJC bills itself as the nation's premiere authority on immigration policy as it affects the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, so who better to talk with about what's going on in immigration land?

Q. Karen, how does the immigration issue hit Asian American homes?

As you know, Asian Americans have a higher percentage of foreign-born residents living in the U.S. so immigration is very much a relevant issue to many families in our community. We did some exit polling [during the November 2007 Presidential election] to find out just how important the issue of immigration was to Asian-Americans and I thought one of the interesting takeaways was that it was very important, and that there were very strong views of how the different [political] parties looked at immigration.

We were looking to see what effect Asian-American votes had on the race and found that 94 percent of Asian-American voters supported increasing programs to help new immigrants learn English and 56 percent of Asian Americans who voted on election day oppose continuing workplace raids. We felt the emerging story on the Asian-American community is that on the economy, healthcare, and immigration, they're voting for someone with a progressive agenda.

Q. A nice chunk of your polling happened here in Chicago, can you talk a little bit about what you found here?

Tuyet Le, the executive director of the Chicago-based Asian American Institute participated in a tele-briefing posted on our website in which she discussed her findings.

She said that the Chicago Asian American Institute, in conjunction with other groups such as the Illinois Center for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, polled 15 areas in the city and suburbs, though most came from the Chinatown area.

What they found was that [across polling sites] 81 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Obama 16 percent for Sen. John McCain.

Tuyet reported that the top issues were the economy and jobs at 45 percent, then healthcare, and education. Specific to immigration, the top issue in importance was faster processing of family re- unification applications, with 25 percent of respondents favoring a path to legalization.

In terms of party politics, 50 percent of respondents felt the Democrats were very favorable toward immigration reform in contrast to the 46 percent who felt Republicans were unfavorable toward immigration reform. Obviously this debate had a significant influence on how Asian Americans voted and how they perceive each of the parties being responsive to Asian Americans in regard to immigration issues.

In fact, 18-30 year olds overwhelmingly voted for Obama and foreign born voters overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama at even slightly a higher rate than U.S. born Asian Americans. Tuyet said that in Chicago a majority of the survey participants were foreign born which shows that the message is reaching across generations.

Q. What's the situation with undocumented Asians? We never hear about them. The most recent statistics I found from a March 2006 a report estimated the number of undocumented Asians living in the United States in 2005 was about 1.5 million - 14 percent of the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and 12 percent of the Asian population. At the time it was estimated that of the 1.5 million 23 percent were Chinese, followed by Filipinos (17%), Indians (14%), and Koreans (11%).

What's been reported largely has been just the issue of the undocumented and therefore people are under the false impression that most illegal immigrants choose to come in undocumented.

People misunderstand how hard it gets to get in the U.S., people believe [illegal immigrants] have a choice to come in legally but don't.

For Asians, a majority came on a student or tourist visa, or temporary employment visa and overstayed so they don't think of themselves as illegal immigrants because they came with documents and a lot of them are caught in the bureaucracy to adjust their status.

Because it is a very different kind of immigration on some levels it does make it difficult. For example, the fact that someone's undocumented status tends to be a secret more so than in the Latino community where, for instance, many undocumented immigrants come from the same family or village. And that's one of the reasons why it's harder to organize the Asian community - I think there is more of a stigma in the Asian community about being undocumented.

Asian kids sometimes don't even know because their parents never even told them! We saw that a lot when advocacy began on the Dream Act.

Again that was seen largely as a "Latino issue" but we found out it was an issue in the Asian community but it wasn't well known - kids didn't discover it until they were going to college.

For instance, there's a wide preconception that there aren't many undocumented in the Chinese community but that's probably higher than any other. If I go to talk to a Chinese group about immigration and ask who knows someone who is undocumented almost no one will raise their hand but then after I talk, people will come up to me individually and say, "I have an auntie" or "an uncle," but they would never publicly admit that.

And the reasons for that vary - for instance, some refugees are undocumented but the numbers are lower so when you talk to Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants about the issues, there can be less sympathy because they largely came here legally and don't understand [the challenges].

Q. Talk a bit about the "signature" Asian American immigration issue.

It's the issue of family backlogs. Huge backlogs exist in families where immigrants are citizens and they can bring in spouses, and parents, and minor children from overseas. The backlog grew enormously in part because those who became citizens during the last legalization programs are now finally now trying to get family members over.

In July 2007, 4 million immigrants were in the backlogs and we estimate about half are spouses of legal permanent residents.

So the family concerns flow through all of these issues; the high tech workers, unless they're already married, they face enormous wait times. And historically extended family immigration [of brothers and sisters] is perceived as being more important to Asians than Latinos.

What's very important to Asians is that a big part of the backlog is family members where for Latinos there are larger numbers of undocumented living here versus those with a backlog of families waiting - for Latinos that number is only about 10 percent.

Q. So what's your best prediction about the immigration issue under the Obama administration? Are we going to see any movement this year?

It's a little early in the game... we know this is an issue Obama had spoken a lot about in the campaign. Most people didn't notice because it wasn't an issue they were following but every time he spoke of comprehensive immigration reform he would talk about family backlogs.

The administration knows this is an issue that needs paying attention to but with the economy it's very difficult to talk about any kind of immigration - people are very skittish about additional immigration.

But I think an argument can be made that solving this issue and helping families come together - especially in times when families need to work together - people will be able to see that if you take care of this issue now it would be helpful to the economy in the long term.

One of the things people tend to look at regarding family immigration is the degree to which it helps that family, but they don't understand that it's important in helping all people thrive because immigrants buy houses, buy businesses, send kids to college, and pool their money.

This is why the Asian community has been relatively successful in integrating in the U.S. - they live with other family members who help them get jobs, learn English, and learn the culture.

Family immigration has been at the core of U.S. immigration for about 100 years now. People talk about changing the immigration system [to limit family immigration] but they lose perspective of the role the family plays in helping new immigrants become part of America.