Asian Immigration and the Myth of the ‘Model Minority’

Korean American Census Rally in Queens, NY - Photo: Sooyeon Kim.

A Korean American rally to promote participation in the 2010 Census in Queens, NY. (Photo: Sooyeon Kim)

Immigration is seen by most Americans as a Latino issue. The faces splashed on newspapers, television and blogs appear to be Hispanic, their names sound Spanish, and they are said to come from Mexico and other nations in Central and Latin America.

But the U.S. immigration system and the debate over how it should be reformed affect not only Latinos but all immigrant communities. Among the countenances rarely pictured and stories seldom told are those from Asia.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) reports that 28 percent of all immigrants in the United States – about 11 million – hail from Asia. Asians are the second largest immigrant group after Latinos, with nearly half coming from the Philippines, India and China and residing in California, New York and Texas.

Michelle Mittelstadt, MPI’s Director of Communications, believes that immigration is identified with Latinos because more than half of all immigrants to the United States are from Latin America, and much of the political discourse is focused on those without papers. “Much of the public discussion in Washington and beyond in recent years has focused overwhelmingly on illegal immigration – and more than three quarters of unauthorized immigrants are from Latin America,” Mittelstadt said.

Tarry Hum, associate professor of urban studies at CUNY Queens College and Graduate Center, agrees. “The American public assumes immigrants – in particular, undocumented immigrants – are Latinos who crossed the Mexican-U.S. border,” she said.

Melany DeLa Cruz, Assistant Director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center says the difference in perception of the two ethnic groups has to do with the history of immigration policy and where these immigrants fit into the U.S. economic scheme.

“U.S. corporations have heavily relied on cheap labor supply from Latin American countries. This has resulted in stereotyping Latinos as ‘taking jobs away’ or ‘bringing down wages’ when it is the corporate structure at fault. In contrast, recent U.S. immigration policies towards Asia and the Pacific have changed to attract wealthy investors and skilled workers. This has resulted in overlooking poor Asian immigrants that work in low-wage sectors,” Cruz said.

Asian immigrants are perceived as ‘model minorities’ who work hard, do well, and don’t complain. In the American imagination, they do not seem to share the challenges faced by other immigrant groups.

The statistics perpetuate the stereotype. Nearly half of Asian immigrant adults have a college degree or higher. Among all immigrants, Asians are more concentrated in management, information technology, and science and engineering. A majority of immigrant doctors and nurses are from Asia.

Hum, who characterizes the model minority ideal as “another type of racial stereotyping,” argues that this is bad for the Asian American community as “it sets Asians apart from other immigrant communities of color and reinforces our invisibility in the political sphere.”

“Countless Asian or Pacific Island immigrants are part of the 99 percent that are exploited in low-wage jobs and subsidize the comfortable lifestyle of the 1 percent that are privileged,” DeLa Cruz added. “These include Vietnamese nail salon workers, Thai massage workers, Filipino home health care workers, Chinese restaurant workers, etc. Their stories need to be told and be made more visible to the larger public.”

Indeed, not all Asian immigrants are highly educated, affluent or in the country lawfully.

MPI estimates that Asian immigrants accounted for 11 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in 2010. The Department of Homeland Security counts among the undocumented 280,000 Filipinos, 200,000 Indians, 170,000 Koreans and 130,000 Chinese.

Asians are no different from Latinos and other immigrant communities. Many families are threatened by separation since a family member or two, usually parents, are without papers. Young Asian women and men who were brought into the country as children and grew up thinking they are citizens often discover that they are not. Both high and low skilled Asian workers are wanting for visas and legal jobs. Gay Asian immigrants cannot be sponsored for permanent residency by their American spouses and partners.

A key issue for the Asian immigrant community is family separation which is exacerbated, rather than alleviated, by the current immigration system.

“Immigration is an area fraught with complexity, so the issues are many,” Mittelstadt wrote via email. “But among the top immigration challenges are the lengthy wait times for family-based visas for immigrants coming from China, the Philippines and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Asian immigrants and their family abroad often wait for as long as two decades to be reunited. In the meantime, children and parents get older and families grow apart.

The faces we see and the voices we often hear in the immigration debate might seem only Latino, but the often rancorous exchange and resulting consequences impact all immigrant communities, including the fabled “model minority.”

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blogFeet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.