Asian-American Reactions to Immigration Debate

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Protests against proposed immigration legislation have focused almost exclusively on Latinos. But research indicates the nation's population of illegal immigrant also includes more than one million people of Asian descent. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED in Los Angeles, Calif., reports on how Asian communities in Southern California have reacted to the debate.


Though much of the immigration debate has focused on Latinos, research suggests that more than one million illegal immigrants come from Asia. But Asians has been mostly absent from the immigration street protests in recent weeks. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED reports.

(Soundbite of protests)

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

As "Cat" Chao watched coverage of the immigration protestors rallying throughout Los Angeles recently, she noticed something missing: Asians. The San Gabriel Valley, where one of the countries largest Chinese populations lives, was eerily quiet.

Ms. KUAN-YU "CAT" CHAO (Rush Hour Radio Host): I don't see any protests on the street, okay? There is zero. I cannot find anybody. It's a shame.

SCHMITZ: So Chow decided to take the debate to the airwaves.

(Soundbite of Chinese radio show)

SCHMITZ: Chow is the host of the popular call-in show, Rush Hour, on Chinese language station KAZN. In the past couple of weeks, Chow has devoted three segments to immigration. She says the majority of her callers are impressed by the Latino protestors.

Ms. CHOU: They really admire them. They can organize this kind of a huge protest, and we don't have this kind of ability to do that. In certain ways, the Chinese-Americans, they just want to make money, have a better life, not really participate with political issues.

SCHMITZ: Two years ago, the Public Policy Institute of California measured civic participation among white, black, Latino and Asian-Americans. Asian-Americans scored at or near the bottom across all the categories. They had the lowest volunteer rate, the lowest public meeting attendance rate and the second lowest voting rate. Curiously enough, the study found Asian-Americans attended public rallies less often than every ethnic group except for Latinos.

But it's a good bet that if the survey were taken today, Latinos would gain some serious ground. Mike Honda is a Democratic Congressman who represents Silicon Valley. He's Japanese-American. Honda says some of the proposed changes on immigration law focus squarely on the U.S. border with Mexico, so they're more pertinent to the Latino community. But Honda says despite the absence of Asian-Americans at many of the nation's protests, they understand the historical gravity of the debate.

They remember the Japanese internment camps of World War II, where Honda spent much of his childhood.

Representative MIKE HONDA (Democrat, California): We had laws passed against us. We had anti-Asian media. We had anti-Asian sentiment. And so we see this as another example of the worst of American politics coming to the forefront.

SCHMITZ: But some Asians don't share Congressman Honda's perspective. Jessica and Michael Ma(ph), both Chinese immigrants, wheel their groceries to a car outside of a popular Chinese supermarket in the San Gabriel Valley. The couple came to the U.S. 20 years ago. They now have green cards. Mrs. Ma says she doesn't approve of the Latino protests.

Ms. JESSICA MA: (Through Translator) They come here illegally and take jobs and opportunities from the rest of us. Chinese people aren't really interested in the immigration issue, but if someday the government starts targeting us, then we might start worrying about it.

SCHMITZ: Back at KAZN, Kat Chow moderates this very debate among her listeners. Another host at the station, Felix Guo, sees a more practical reason why there aren't many Asians protesting immigration reform. If they're illegal, why advertise it? Deportation for Asians involves greater distance and greater consequences.

Mr. FELIX GUO (KAZN Host): Because for the Latinos, they can just, they go back Wednesday and come back Thursday. It's not easy. But then, what the Chinese say, if they get deported, then maybe that's it.

SCHMITZ: And it a face-saving culture, says Guo, being deported back to your homeland with nothing in your pockets carries a degree of humiliation that's difficult to bear.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY.

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