Editor’s note: Names in this story have been changed because some DACA recipients were concerned about the impact of revealing their status. Faces have also been blurred or not recorded to protect the interviewee’s identity.
Growing up, Deborah felt she had a pretty normal childhood. Only a few instances stood out to her as odd.
“Any time a police officer stopped us or something, my parents would freak out,” Deborah says.
Deborah and her family are part of the roughly 1.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who came from Asia and the Pacific Islands. While the number of undocumented immigrants from Asia, particularly China, India and the Philippines, have been on the rise, those from Mexico and Central America still make up about two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants in the Unites States. This has left the Asian American community largely out of the discussion on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The program was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012. DACA allows young people who were brought to the United States as children to apply for deferred action on deportation. Recipients are able to work legally, get licenses and attend college if they meet the program criteria. It does not provide a pathway to citizenship.
“I just feel like people don’t expect Asians to be undocumented or be on DACA,” says Soobin, a DACA recipient since 2012. “I’ll mention it to people and they’ll be like, ‘Oh I had no idea. I thought you were a citizen, or I thought you had a visa.’ It just doesn’t occur to them that there are undocumented Asian Americans here.”
It sometimes doesn’t occur to other undocumented Asian Americans.
“I really felt like I was the only Asian American DACA recipient that was kind of out there,” Deborah says. “It just felt really lonely.”
It’s a feeling shared by Farzana, a former DACA recipient who is now a permanent resident.
“We’re so fearful about what will happen if we come out, no one really shared that information,” Farzana says. “So with the resources being limited or not there at all, and the fear, we just all distanced [from] each other.”
Asian Americans make up roughly 10% of the potential DACA recipient pool, but within that group, the number of actual applicants is low compared to other racial and ethnic groups. About 40% to 60% of eligible applicants from Mexico and Central America applied for DACA. But participation within some Asian American communities was as low as 3%.
“This was something that had come up in the early research ... of the DACA program as to why Asian immigrants were not taking advantage of DACA,” says Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “They felt they had better options.”
Capps says there are several factors that lead to low enrollment among Asian Americans. Eligible immigrants may be from smaller, more isolated communities making it difficult to get information. They may also have other avenues to getting legal status that provide more security. Asian immigrants also may not feel the same pressure as their Latino counterparts do in terms of being deported. Capps also points out that a sense of isolation can cause people to close themselves off.
“It's just not that unusual to encounter unauthorized immigrants in Mexican and Central American immigrant communities,” Capps says. “It is highly unusual to encounter them in Asian immigrant communities, which means there's much more of a stigma attached to it.”
Nong Xiong has seen that hesitancy firsthand. She’s an advocate for DACA and undocumented students who previously worked with the Monarch Student Program at the University of Texas at Austin. She says between cultural implications of success and a sense of distrust for governments both in the U.S. and abroad, it can be difficult for recipients to feel safe sharing their experiences.
“It’s a very unfortunate place to be in because you don’t know who you can trust,” Xiong says. “That can make it difficult to seek out legal resources.”
Cost is also a factor. The DACA application fee is nearly $500. Enrolling or staying in the program has been made all the more complicated due to the shifting state of DACA. President Trump attempted to cancel the program in 2017, and was met with several lawsuits. While the Supreme Court ruled against termination, lawsuits at the state level still threaten the program. The litigation whirlpool has made it difficult for applicants or government officials to know where the program stands.
“If I go to the DPS just to get a license, the people who work there sometimes don’t know what my status is,” Soobin says. “There’s a lot of confusion. ... I couldn’t even tell you the specifics with all the rules and regulations.”
There is some cautious optimism for the future of DACA amongst some recipients. President-elect Joe Biden said on his first day in office he would make the program permanent. He’s also promised comprehensive immigration reform, providing a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Overall, it’s a tone that Soobin hopes will help change the rhetoric around immigration policy.
“I feel like generally the laws that are in place right now are trying to keep immigrants out. Like there’s an undertone of that carrying through all the rules,” Soobin says. “Immigrants aren’t just this mob of people here to steal your jobs and, like, invade this country. We’re all human beings who are here, and we have lives.”
Soobin isn’t alone in her sentiment. For many longtime DACA recipients, the conversation over the future of the program is a microcosm of the larger immigration issues in the U.S. Their concerns on citizenship often go beyond their fellow enrollees and extend to immigrants across the board.
“If we ask for a pathway to citizenship, it’s not just for, like, DACA recipients or young immigrants,” Deborah says. “It includes everybody.”
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