Immigration Reform Has Never Been Just A 'Latino Issue'

Immigration reform has always been a fight for Asian Americans too.

May 7, 2013 — -- It's rare for a TV pundit or politico to talk about immigration reform these days without mention of Republicans losing the "Latino vote." But what they tend to forget is that about 2.5 million of the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in this country are not from Latin America. And the majority of that minority (or about 1.3 million) is from Asia.

With immigration levels from Mexico slowing, the Latin American portion of immigrants living in the country illegally is shrinking in comparison to the portions from other countries. In other words, immigration isn't just a Latino issue, and it hasn't been for some time.

Until the 1980's, the majority of immigration to the U.S. was from Europe. This changed, in part, because of initiatives like the Bracero program that brought thousands of Mexicans to the United States to work. Even after it was shut down, immigrants kept coming for the same jobs, except they had no program to come through. This rise in undocumented immigrants led to President Ronald Reagan's Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It was the first legislative attempt to comprehensively address the issue of unauthorized immigration, but has been heavily criticized for failing to secure the border and for encouraging document fraud.

Still, some 2.7 million people benefitted from the act. Of those, about 1 in 5 was from Asia, Africa or Europe. Many of those from Asia came to escape poverty or oppressive governments, to find better jobs for themselves or to secure educational opportunities for their children.

Noel's Story

Noel Bordador of the Philippines was among this group.

Bordador came to the U.S. in 1979 as a 14 year old with his parents from Southeast Asia. Now 48 years old, Bordador is an Episcopal priest who's chosen to practice mostly outside of the church, serving as a social worker in New York City and helping the city's homeless population find housing and employment.

Like most Asian beneficiaries of the amnesty bill, Bordador came to the U.S. on a valid visa and then overstayed its terms (Latin American beneficiaries were more likely to have entered the country without authorization.) He entered the U.S. with his family on a tourist visa, and was told by his parents that it had been converted into a student visa.

"All I know is that our immigration status lapsed in the early eighties, and I remember receiving a letter that said they were denying our request to stay," Bordador said.

When their visa request was denied, Bordador's parents returned to the Philippines, but decided that their two sons should stay and try to finish out their American education. Asian beneficiaries of the 1986 amnesty also tend to be a bit better off than those beneficiaries from Latin American countries. That's true for Bordador, who says it wasn't out of economic need that he remained, but because his parents hoped an American education would provide him with greater opportunities.

Bordador says he felt "ashamed" and lived in fear that he "would be found out," especially every year in April.

"I filed my own taxes every year, even though there was a possibility I would be deported," he said.

When Reagan announced the amnesty bill in the '80s, Bordador, who is gay, says it was a relief. He would not have been able to live openly as a gay man if he had to return to the Philippines., where anti-LGBT hate crimes were commonplace at the time.

"The U.S. is a great country. Like any country it has some imperfections, but at least in this country I can open up my mouth and not feel like I'm going to be killed for my beliefs," he said.

Bordador applied for amnesty his junior year of college. He said it gave him hope that he could find work in a country that he considered his own, and allowed him to travel freely back to the Philippines to see his mother, father, brothers and sisters who he hadn't seen for nearly five years.

"I felt like I could really have a future here," he said. "It was an exhilarating feeling when I finally was able to be open about who I was to the government."

Immigration Debate For Asian Immigrants

While their circumstances may vary from those of Latino immigrants, overall the issue of immigration continues to be a huge topic for Asian communities living in the U.S. ( It still, however, ranks far behind unemployment and the economy when Asian voters are polled.)

Four out of the five countries with the longest visa wait times are in Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, China, India) and fifty-four percent of Asian-Americans say that the visa backlog is a serious or significant problem for their families, according to last year's National Asian American Survey.

And that means one thing: Asian voters have even more reason to care about immigration reform today than they did in 1986. Asians may have represented a smaller percentage of undocumented immigrants then and now, but they cannot be ignored in this process. The GOP, whose harsh rhetoric has hurt them with Latino voters, would do well to pay attention their standing with Asian voters as well.

Although most Asian-Americans supported Reagan and George H.W. Bush in '80's and '90's, a majority of Asian voters cast their votes for a Democrat in 2004-- John Kerry over George W. Bush. Last November, 73 percent of Asians voted for Barack Obama over Romney -- a higher percentage than Latinos.

For Asian voters, cutting down visa wait times and prioritizing family reunification visas will be of the utmost importance, according to DeepaIyer, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT.

Iyer also says that there's a common misconception that Asian immigrants are mostly "high-skilled workers."

"These are people who are doing immigrant labor. They are working as waiters. They might be working as janitors. They might be domestic workers. They're also people who might be high-skilled workers who lost their jobs and don't have any way to regularize their status," Iyer told NPR.

"We're talking about a range of people - family members, grandmothers to immigrant laborers to high skilled workers - who are part of this undocumented community."