by/ Ariel Tu
Gabrielle Cabalza was 9 years old when she realized her family was not like everyone else’s. One day after school, she walked into the dining room, where the air was dense with fear and sadness. She found her parents sobbing at the table because of a traffic ticket.
“Dad might have to go for a while, OK?” Cabalza’s mother said to her as tears lay in small puddles on the dining table.
“I didn’t understand where he was going or why. And why the ticket meant that. I didn’t understand any of that at all -- it was just so over my head,” said Cabalza of that day 12 years ago. “I just remember being really scared.”
For Cabalza, whose father was staying in the U.S. without authorization, a ticket meant her dad could be deported back to the Philippines.
Cabalza’s father didn’t end up having to leave the country -- the ticket was waived, and he has since become a permanent resident -- but the experience was a wake-up call to her. It was one of the moments that contributed to Cabalza’s understanding of her identity, when she started to realize she was different.
The 21-year-old is one of the nearly 800,000 young immigrants who are living with uncertainty after the Trump administration announced a plan to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood, or DACA, a program that allows immigrants who came to the United States illegally before age 16 to avoid deportation.
Statistics from the Migration Policy Institute for 2016 shows that immigrants from Asia have some of the lowest application rates for DACA. Among the nearly 136,000 Asian immigrants who were eligible, only 16,000 applied for DACA, a 12 percent application rate. Compared to DACA-eligible Mexicans, 84 percent of which applied for the amnesty program, only 16 percent of eligible South Koreans applied.
Immigration advocates are working to overcome Asians’ unwillingness to apply for programs that they qualify for.
“At least from my personal opinion, it takes a couple of tries. It’s really like multiple conversations to be able to get someone to really understand why it’s important for them to apply for DACA or for citizenship or whatever programs,” said Anthony Ng, a policy advocate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice--Los Angeles, a legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans and other underserved communities.
Advocates believe that Asians’ silence limits their ability to fight for their rights.
“It’s really about coming out and being vocal about what your rights are,” said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for pro-immigrant legislation.
Based on her experience working with Asian-American communities, Buiza said that “there’s really a reluctance to so-called ‘get out of the shadows’ and be known as being undocumented.”
The model minority image has been internalized by members of Asian communities and has silenced people who are here illegally, said Ruth Chung, professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
“The cultural value of conformity, and then added to the stigma and the sense of shame, that makes sense,” she said.
“They look around and they think, ‘Oh, you know, Asian-American communities are supposed to be successful and well-achieving,’” said Chung, an expert on Asian-American cultural identity. “They feel ashamed, and there is this stigma of being deviant or unusual or different from what they perceive to be the norm within the Asian-American community.”
But illegal immigration isn’t rare among Asian Americans. About 1 in 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented, according to research by the AAPI Data project at the University of California, Riverside. The Pew Research Center found that Asians make up about 13 percent of the 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.
“They largely operate in a subterranean level where they’re there but they try to remain somewhat aloof and unobtrusive for fear that even within their communities, they might be exposed and put at risk,” Chung said.
Growing Up in an Asian Family
Cabalza’s family came from the Philippines when she was 4. Growing up in a Filipino family, she doesn’t remember there ever to be a conversation with her parents about her identity and what it means.
“I think it was always an assumption, it was never explained,” she said. “At least from my experience, Asian-American communication from the elderly is not always the most efficient or straightforward way of getting information. It’s always something that they’re trying to hide or help you with and support you in, and sometimes it buries the truth.”
Like many other children growing up in an Asian-American family, Cabalza was taught to keep her head down and go with the flow, “and don’t even think about why it’s wrong or if it’s wrong, or things shouldn’t be this way, just internalize and go.”
When in college, she finally met another person who lacked legal status and shared the same fears with her, Cabalza’s whole narrative changed.
“Having that shared experience and finally being understood by someone was really like relieving to me,” she said with a slight smile. “Finding out a friend was also undocumented was a catalyst for me coming to terms with it. That was definitely the first step in recognizing it was OK, and that my story was important.”
Studying in a white Christian high school in Watsonville, California, Cabalza was often surrounded by conservative peers who didn’t welcome immigrants. She remembered hearing one of her high school friends, who is not Asian, saying: “We should keep immigrants out. They’re taking our jobs.”
During those times, Cabalza would always be quiet and not really engaged, especially when others think of Asian Americans as the model minority and don’t assume she has the same issues that other minority groups have.
“It’s really hard for us to feel like we’re like a part of the community sometimes, being undocumented, because people don’t think of us as such,” Cabalza said. “It’s hard because people don’t think that it’s something that affects us as well.”
After getting closer with her friend in high school, Cabalza decided to communicate with her.
She remembered saying: “Hey, I’m undocumented, and this is something that’s really difficult for me.”
“And she was like: ‘Oh…,’ she stopped and listened to me and reassessed.”
Cabalza gained support from her close friends, but not everyone shares the same experience when they decide to reveal their status.
'I missed DACA by two weeks'
Ian, who declined to give his last name, lost some of his closest friends because of his immigration status.
“I told a couple people I thought I could trust, but they stopped talking to me afterwards. It made me very aware of who I tell,” said Ian, who fell out of status in 2012 when he was in his sophomore year in college.
For Ian, whose family is from the Philippines, shame isn’t the primary reason that stops him from revealing his status. It is the fear of losing his friends from Orange County. “I still have a lot of friends, who were high school buddies with me who are Trump supporters. I had to be very careful about that,” he said, adding that he knows what his friends are capable of.
Ian’s American story began in 2004 when he was 11 years old. His father received a work visa and decided to bring his family to the U.S. Both of Ian’s parents were born in the Philippines and were working in Singapore before coming here. To take a shot at the American dream, Ian’s family declined Singaporean citizenship, which they were offered by that time, and moved to the United States.
In 2012, Ian said, when his family was finally eligible to apply for their green cards and were about to become legal permanent residents, their lawyer “screwed everything up.”
The lawyer, Ian said, kept the green card applications and never submitted it. By the time Ian’s family found out, their visas were expiring. They were about to fall out of legal status.
“I was numb. I felt robbed. I felt robbed of something that shouldn’t have happened. I felt disgusted. I felt like my value as a person was diminished...,” Ian recalled, speaking haltingly as he recounted the pain he felt.
After falling out of legal status, Ian was immediately disqualified from many things that he was part of. He felt ostracized from his friends in college when they were planning to study abroad or plan a trip over the spring break. “I couldn’t do that, because I couldn’t leave the country without getting deported. I felt isolated from them.”
His performance in school suffered. He was living with depression and hopelessness.
“I think I felt during that time was a lot of shame and a lot of pain because I was thinking why it happened to me and now I’m considered this undocumented, illegal person,” Ian said.
In 2013, when he finally decided move forward, Ian found out about the DACA program. “I told myself, if I get this DACA thing, maybe things might be a little bit easier,” he said.
But things never became easier for him. Ian later found out that he qualified for all criteria except one: lacking lawful status on June 15, 2012. “I had become undocumented on June 30, 2012. I missed DACA by two weeks,” he said, pursing his lips. “I was considered undocumented too late to qualify for DACA by two weeks.”
Now 24, Ian is working as an immigration advocate in Los Angeles. Every day, he struggles between being vocal and putting himself and his family at risk.
“I want to do it, I do,” he said. “I really want to go out there and tell my story, but at the same time, I need to protect myself.”
Ian said he often feels guilty about not contributing to the DACA conversation, especially when the anti-DACA voices are the loudest.
The Anti-DACA Asian Immigrants
Surprisingly, some of those anti-DACA voices are immigrants themselves.
“If there are so many people who have come here legally, millions who have become citizens under the legal process of citizenships, what gives anyone the rights to bypass that process?” asked Lisa Shin, an optometrist in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Shin served as a delegate and a speaker at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Drawn to Donald Trump’s vow to crack down on illegal immigration and to affirm the value of U.S. citizens, Shin founded Korean-Americans for Trump and has since been vocal about her view on the border wall that the president promises to build.
“What’s happening right now is that too many people are taking advantage of our lax enforcement of our immigration laws, and they take advantage of our porous border,” she said in a recent interview. “If there is to be some sort of deal, I think Trump needs to tie border security to whatever deal [is] granted to these DACA recipients. We have to secure our borders.”
Shin, the daughter of immigrants from South Korea, believes that it is not necessarily a bad thing for DACA recipients to return to their homelands.
“There’s 7,000 South Korean DACA recipients. Maybe they have to go back to South Korea. What’s wrong with that? South Korea is not a Third World country,” she said.
“I don’t think that deportation is such a negative thing that the media portray. I think it can be an amazing opportunity for these kids to reconnect [to] the rich heritage of their homelands.”
Shin said it was difficult for her parents when they first came to the U.S., especially as South Korea was the only country they knew. Born in the U.S., Shin has seen her parents go through the process to become legal citizens and, she said, better appreciates what it means to be an American.
“Freedom of speech, freedom to worship. There’s so many things here that are really wonderful,” Shin said. “Many other countries don’t have that. They don’t have the liberty, the protections of the freedom and the opportunities.”
Growing up as an Asian American, Shin said, there were times when she doubted her identity and felt a low sense of belonging, but she focused on the opportunity and what the country has to offer. She lives her American dream.
“Obviously Asian Americans have prospered and succeeded in this country. We lived the American dreams. We become American citizens,” Shin said. To her, the model minority is not a myth. “There’s a truth to that. We’ve done incredibly well in this country.”
As someone who came with a visa and played by the rules, Ian once had the same thoughts as Shin. He considered himself a “good immigrant” and believed that all immigrants should have followed the law. But when he fell out of status, he began to feel that the system itself was inherently broken.
“Just because you made it, just because you were able to become a citizen, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking out for your fellow Asians who are trying to have the same opportunity that you did,” he said.
Now, while waiting for Congress to overhaul the immigration laws and find a long-term replacement for DACA, many Asian immigrant rights organizations are calling upon Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a permanent legislative solution that would protect immigrant youth and place them on a pathway to citizenship.
Immigration rights groups also urge DACA recipients and other undocumented people to know their rights and seek legal evaluation about their case from trustworthy organizations.
Even though DACA has been taken away, said Anthony Ng of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, “a lot of the policies we have in California are still intact. For example, in-state tuition for undocumented students.”
“At the federal level, it doesn’t necessarily impact a lot of the great policies that California pushed forward.”
Meanwhile, Ng said it is important to ensure that Asian immigrants are included in the conversation so that policies that are proposed could reflect on the Asian communities’ experience.
In order to accomplish this, Ian said, it will be more important than ever for Asian DACA recipients to share their stories and to galvanize the citizens they know to put pressure on Congress. He urged the movement to come together.
“There are not enough voices for the Asian communities,” he said. “We have to put ourselves out there, because if not, who’s going to do it? No one is going to do it for us.”