From blueprints to bills, the ideas from Washington this week on changing the U.S. immigration system have Asian-Americans in Illinois hopeful. In particular, this time around, they feel that their particular concerns may finally be addressed in a debate that has often focused exclusively on undocumented Mexican immigrants.
“I think that (Asian immigrants) come to the United States in different ways than Mexican-Americans might,” said Tuyet Le, executive director of the Asian American Institute in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. “So even the notion of being undocumented... psychologically, they may have had visas and overstayed them,” she explained, “So even those terminologies are different.”
Asians are about 10 percent of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants, according to a 2011 estimate from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics. They come primarily from China, the Philippines, India, Korea, and Vietnam. Mexicans, by contrast, account for nearly 60 percent of the total. It is not known how many Asian immigrants in Illinois are undocumented, but Asian-Americans are one of the state’s fastest-growing racial groups.
Among the most hopeful points for Asian-Americans in the renewed discussion about immigration reform: fixing the backlog of applications for legal status. “A lot of Korean-Americans apply for permanent residency,” said Sik Sohn, executive director of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, “but it took so long.... A lot of people, their status has been changing to undocumented because of that waiting period.”
Sohn said it’s common for Korean immigrants who come to the U.S. legally, to wait a decade or longer to achieve permanent status. In the meantime, he said, many apply for E-2 visas, which allow them to stay while they have controlling interest in a small business investment. But Sohn said the economic downturn threw a wrench into those plans for many immigrants. Many lost their businesses and were forced to return to South Korea.
The backlog in immigration petitions has also acutely affected Asian-American families seeking reunification. Jerry Clarito, executive director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment, said Filipino families have suffered more than any other group. “We are the specific ethnic group that has that long wait,” said Clarito. “Others maybe would be two, three years.”
Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Indian petitions for family reunification visas take the longest, according to the latest State Department Bulletin. US immigration officials have only gotten to bids filed before April 15, 1989 for certain types of family reunification petitions filed for Filipinos. For that reason, Clarito said, Filipino-Americans are relieved that, while lawmakers propose a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, the blueprints they propose give preference to those who seek citizenship through the established channels.
One thing that has not been mentioned by President Barack Obama or the bipartisan working group of senators who outlined their principles for immigration reform this week: a touchback provision. “During the last time, they talked a lot about ‘touchback,’ meaning people had to go back to their home countries in order to become legalized,” said Le, referring to the 2007 debate over immigration reform. Le said she hopes the idea is not resurrected this time around, because it would be more burdensome for Asian immigrants than Mexican immigrants. “That’s a very different set of economics to be able to pay for a flight home, versus depending on where people live in proximity to Mexico, for example.”