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‘You feel invisible’: How America’s fastest-growing immigrant group is being left out of the DACA conversation

Anthony Ng (Kristian Castro)

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This story has been updated.

Much of the debate around undocumented immigrants focuses on Latinos, but Asians are the nation’s fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants, according to AAPI Data.

The number of undocumented Asians has more than tripled since 2000, and they now account for an estimated 1.6 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data.

“One out of every seven Asian immigrants is undocumented. That is a figure that shocks many people, including Asian Americans,” Ramakrishnan said.

“Most estimates show Indian and Chinese immigrants to be the largest Asian undocumented groups, followed by Filipinos and Koreans,” Ramakrishnan said. “And yet, research on these communities has been very sparse. Are most of them overstaying tourist visas or other types of visas like student visas and temporary work visas? What kind of work do they do? We don’t know the answer to these basic questions.”

Anthony Ngwho came to the United States from the Philippines with his parents at age 12, has been trying to steady himself over the past several weeks as his emotions have run high and low while waiting for President Trump to announce his decision on whether to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. On Tuesday, Trump said the program, 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. He has urged Congress to come up with another plan to allow DACA recipients to remain in the country.

Ng and his sister are DACA recipients who settled with their parents in Los Angeles. Ng’s mother has a green card, and his older brother is a citizen through marriage. His father has since passed away.

After graduating from the University of California at Irvine, Ng worked as a policy advocate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles, a nonprofit civil rights organization. He lobbies elected officials on policies to protect and expand immigrant rights.

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We asked Ng to share his thoughts on the president’s actions, on being undocumented and about how Asians often feel left out of the debate on immigration. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Describe your feelings over the past few weeks and days as you waited for the president’s decision on DACA.

The last month has been extremely emotional for me, knowing that DACA could be taken away and what that means for me day-to-day, how it will affect my life. … I’ve been having emotional highs and lows. Highs from knowing that my community will have my back. A lot of folks are fighting for immigrants to be treated with dignity and respect. The lows come from the uncertainty of what can happen to me and my life in the United States.

Despite your undocumented status, do you still identify as an American?

I definitely feel very close to America. It’s where I’ve grown up. If I ever go back to the Philippines, I’d have a really hard time adjusting. I speak the language, but I don’t know the culture and the way things work there. … My network is here, my community is here, my family is here — everything I know is here. … I think with me, there’s always been this love-hate relationship with my identity of being American. Often I feel like people around me support me and love me, but the system itself, the government, is saying, ‘You’re not welcome here.’ Some elected officials are saying I’m not welcome here. My life is here, and I don’t know any other way of living.

Because Latinos are the face of the immigration debate, do you feel ignored? Does it really matter?

It really does matter. When you feel invisible, you don’t feel connected, you feel isolated. Acknowledging that there are diverse immigrant communities — there are black immigrants, Asian immigrants, LGBT immigrants — means a lot of those folks hold those identities. The first time I met other undocumented Asians, I felt I was understood; I didn’t have to explain myself.

Why were you afraid or reluctant to tell people that you are undocumented? Why would it be different for you than for Latinos?

It’s different in the sense that the Latino community has shifted in being more supportive of undocumented folks in their community, while in the Asian community, the stigma around being undocumented is far too real. We don’t talk about [being undocumented] in our communities and many folks in the community don’t acknowledge that there are undocumented Asians and the main stream media and public continue to perpetuate that invisibility. Before DACA, I was reluctant of telling folks of my status because I didn’t want to be treated differently.

Is your ultimate goal to become a U.S. citizen?

Right now, there is no way for undocumented folks to gain citizenship. There’s not a line for us to fall into. That’s why pushing for policies to create those pathways is important. Yes, I would want to become a citizen. My family is here; my life is here. This is the country I know, that I have contributed to. The Philippines will always have a place in my heart. I grew up there, but my formative years were here in the United States. As cliched as it sounds, I am an American without papers, but I am an American at heart. That’s how most immigrants feel. This is our home. We’ve made this our home.

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