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August 31, 2012

Deferred Action gives Hope to Asian Immigrants

by Matthew Hilburn

A new program that will allow certain undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States has shed light on the plight of the many Asians who consider themselves Americans but don't have legal documentation.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco in California, says undocumented Asian immigrants may account for as many as 200,000 out of the 1.4 million to 2 million young immigrants who might qualify for the deferred action program, which provides a hiatus on deportation.

When most Americans think about illegal immigration, they usually think about people from Latin America, but Asian communities say they, too, are grappling with similar problems, even if they’re not as public about it.

“It’s just not something talked about in the Asian-American community,” said Andrew Kang, a senior staff attorney at the Asian-American Institute, a Chicago-based advocacy group. “There has been a rapid growth in the community, and some have been undocumented.”

Kang says within the undocumented Asian community, overstaying one’s visa is “a big thing,” particularly with people holding student visas. He also says the wait times for family-sponsored visas are, in some cases, so long that many people feel it’s better to take the risk and keep their relatives together, even if it’s illegally.

“A lot of them are brought over by their parents and don’t know they are undocumented until they get older,” Kang said. “There’s no recourse for them.”

Hing says the Asian immigrants he knows just want to feel like contributing members of society.

“I work with a number of these students in the Chinatown area of San Francisco, and they’re very excited because they have gone to school, they are hard working,” said Hing. “They want to contribute. Unfortunately, they have not been eligible to work. And that’s the key. They want to be able to work and support themselves, and to contribute to the United States economy. So they’re very excited and hopeful.”

The U.S. and Immigration Services began accepting applications this month from individuals who came illegally to the country as children and want to apply for deferred action, or a two-year hiatus on deportation. To qualify, applicants must be 31 years-old or younger, have arrived in the U.S. before turning 16, meet education requirements or have served in the military, and pass a criminal background check .

Two undocumented Asian immigrants, Emily Park and Carla Navoa, are excited but skeptical about the program.

“I can’t say I was expecting this exactly,” said Navoa, a 23 year-old Philippine national.

Navoa came to the U.S. with her family at the age of five in the hopes her grandfather, who had a permanent resident visa or “Green Card,” would eventually get citizenship and sponsor the family. When he died, Navoa found herself stuck in an unenviable position. 

While she was happy when U.S. President Barack Obama announced the deferred action for childhood arrivals, she says she hoped for more.

“A lot of people were pushing for an executive order, which is harder to be overturned,” she said.

Park, a Korean national who came to the U.S. at 15 with her grandmother, expressed some hesitation.

“I’m hopeful and excited, but I’m still very skeptical how effective it will be,” she said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Many Asians enter the the U.S. on a tourist visa, like Park and Navoa did. Others come in on student visas. Hing says many Asian immigrants also go to Mexico or Canada and cross the border illegally.

Park, who is self-employed but didn’t want to provide more specifics, says she has reached her limit on living as an undocumented immigrant.

“We live in a constant fear of deportation,” she said. “We don’t know when or where we can be deported. We don’t have government-issued identification and nothing to prove who we are. We can’t work, and  we can’t use our college career.”

Park, who graduated from college last year with a degree in neuroscience, could only watch as her friends applied to graduate school or got jobs.

“The best I could do was apply for internships,” she said.

Navoa says she looks forward to finishing college, applying to graduate schools and finally becoming a teacher. She’s currently working for an immigration advocacy group and says the deferred action will make life at least temporarily better for some of her clients.

“So many youth that I know are working under the table [informally] and don’t get fair treatment,” she said. “One was working at a restaurant and was often underpaid, overworked and treated poorly. With a work permit, I think that would protect them, and they don’t have to fear losing their jobs.”

Navoa, Park and Hing all agree that deferred action leaves many questions unanswered, especially with a presidential election coming up.

Park and Navoa said a two-year hiatus from deportation falls far short of the provisions outlined in the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, a decade-old bill that would give permanent resident status to young high school graduates “of good moral character.” The so-called DREAM Act came within five votes of passage in the Senate in 2010.

Immigrants “want to know what will happen at the end of the two years,” said Hing. “Will they be asked to leave the country?”

He added many potential applicants are concerned the information they provide will be used against them at the end of the two-year hiatus, although the government has said the data will be confidential because the agency that collects the data cannot share it, even if the program is reversed after two years.

Hing is advising undocumented immigrants who want to work to apply. He does caution, however, that the program may not be extended beyond two years. Still, he said the greatest loss likely would be losing employment authorization, not being forced out of the U.S.

“We may look back on this moment and regret it. But honestly, as a practical matter, I think it would be very difficult to deport these youngsters two years from now based on the representations that have been made,” he said.

Navoa agrees but advises would-be applicants to get expert advice.

“If you’re going to fill out the application, go to an accredited organization or lawyer and pay a fee,” she said. “There are a lot of areas that are vague on the application. I’ve looked and seen some vagueness. It really does require going to a lawyer.”

For Park, there’s a sense of relief.

“I’m just happy that I could apply,” she said.

Additional reporting by Ira Mellman.