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Undocumented Asian Immigrants Eye DACA Future

Agnes Lee, 22, is a Korean-born corporate banker working for a huge U.S. financial firm on Wall Street. She is also an undocumented immigrant and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals participant.

Lee’s family came to the United States from Seoul when she was two years old. People don’t expect her to be undocumented, she said, because, “I’m college-educated, I speak English, I kind of have this weird crossover Valley girl accent just being from Los Angeles, and I’m Korean.”

President Donald Trump recently announced that DACA, which protects 690,000 undocumented immigrants who were minors when their families brought them to the United States from deportation, would end in six months. The vast majority — around 618,000 of the total 690,000 — of DACA recipients are from Mexico. But there are also thousands of people from Asian countries like China, India, South Korea and the Philippines who would lose their protection and may be deported.

Asians are America’s fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center and the Migration Policy Institute.

“We have the model minority stereotype — we’re said to be more educated and things like that, which are all myths really — so they don’t associate Asian-Americans with being undocumented,” Lee said.

Mexicans account for an estimated 50% of the total undocumented population, as the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has declined by more than 1 million since 2007.

At the same time, unauthorized immigration from Asia has surged. There are now about 1.45 million undocumented Asians living in the United States.

Lee is one of the nearly 200,000 undocumented Koreans here, an only child whose mother worked at a pre-school and then managed a Korean fried chicken restaurant in Los Angeles. Lee’s family entered the United States legally in 1997, but then overstayed their tourist visas.

Trump has focused on increased border security and building a huge wall on the Mexican border as the solution to illegal immigration. But estimates by the Pew Research Center show that as many as 45% of undocumented immigrants in the United States entered the country legally but then overstayed their visas — and they come from every continent, including hundreds of thousands from Asia and Africa.

“We can’t get sponsored, we can’t pursue path to citizenship — it’s a really proliferated myth that we have some sort of path and we don’t take it. That’s not true. My employer can’t sponsor me,” Lee said.

Lee’s DACA status expires in March 2019. After then, under current rules, she said she can either leave the country and be banned from the United States for 10 years, or get married and be allowed to stay. Neither are her first choice.

Trump’s decision to end the DACA program has been met with widespread criticism by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, business leaders, foreign government leaders, state governors, and activists. Officials and families are upset that the United States may pull the legal status of young people brought into the country illegally when they were only children at the time, completely upending their lives.

Though Asians account for a significant and growing population of undocumented immigrants in the United States, they had some of the lowest application rates to DACA. Only about 20% of the eligible Korean population applied, and only 23% of eligible Filipinos and 20% of eligible Indians applied, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But 82% of eligible Mexicans applied.

Rio Djiwandana is a Teach For America educator in New York. His family arrived from Indonesia and overstayed their tourist visas when he was four months old. He enrolled in DACA his freshman year at Georgetown University.

When asked about what may have caused the disparity in DACA application rates, Djiwandana says lack of information sharing, resources, as well as cultural barriers may have contributed to the low numbers. He said unlike Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking Hispanic immigrants, Asians face the additional challenge of coming from vastly diverse cultures that speak no common language.

“In the Asian community we speak so many different languages, and because of that it’s really hard to unify under a common identity,” he said. “Korean, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian and Filipino communities — they don’t have that much in common,” he said.

Religion, language and cultural customs vary widely within these groups, which makes information sharing about opportunities like DACA difficult.

DACA is no longer accepting new applications since Trump’s announcement, but Lee is hopeful and optimistic that Congress will act to protect the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients, because of all of the bipartisan support she is seeing.

“I’m feeling pretty good about it — the amount of positive attention this is getting is really nice,” Lee said. “Of course with that comes with really nasty things that people say that’s really dehumanizing, but it’s one of our specialties to just tune that out.”