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From Shame and Secrecy to A New Life: Addressing Disparities in DACA Enrollment for AAPI Communities

Juliet Choi, director of USCIS (left) and Annie Wang, staff attorney at AALDEF at the NYC Media Roundtable on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Impact on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Photo by Julius Motal for CCEM

Public perceptions about immigration, as well as cultural norms, shape immigrants’ everyday realities. Sometimes these factors affect how immigrants adapt to policies and programs. Immigrants eligible for immigration relief programs might believe they aren’t because of media portrayals of undocumented immigrants. Community beliefs and cultural norms around shame, secrecy, and stigma can prevent eligible immigrants from seeking available services.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are among the many groups affected by these factors, which has also impacted their enrollment in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. AAPI communities in the United States include large populations of undocumented immigrants. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 1.464 million people, or 13% of the total undocumented population, are from Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. However, the community has low enrollment in the program, despite its vast benefits for undocumented immigrants.

According to Steve Choi, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition, New York City has nearly 500,000 undocumented immigrants. 23% of these are Asian American and Pacific Islander. The Chinese community has the second highest number of undocumented immigrants in New York State. DACA could potentially aid approximately 14,000 AAPI New Yorkers. However, more than 40% of eligible AAPI immigrants have not applied for DACA.

Why does this disparity exist? Community leaders and government officials came together to discuss some of the factors that lead to lack of enrollment of AAPI communities in DACA and what we can collectively do to change that at a media roundtable on September 1st. The New York Immigration Coalition partnered with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as local AAPI groups including the Asian American Federation, Minkwon Center for Community Action, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. The event was hosted at the CUNY School of Journalism’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media.

Presenters focused on public perceptions of immigration, as well as cultural norms within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Common themes included shame, secrecy, and stigma, as well as misconceptions about immigration.

James Hong, executive director of MinKwon Center for Community Action, at the NYC Media Roundtable on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Impact on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Photo by Julius Motal for CCEM

James Hong, Interim Executive Director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, addressed the shame surrounding undocumented status in Korean communities. He noted that "Shame and secrecy are so strong... Many applicants only find out they are undocumented when they apply" (for financial aid or other programs that require citizenship). For Hong, DACA is a crucial program; “DACA has transformed the lives of thousands, allowing them to land better, higher-paying jobs, to drive themselves to work, to travel, and to simply ‘sleep better at night,’ as one recipient described it.”

Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director at the Asian American Federation, discussed the disconnect occurring between AAPIs and DACA due to stigma: “Despite the best efforts of our city’s leadership to reach the unauthorized immigrant community, there are still thousands of eligible individuals in the pan-Asian community who have not yet applied for DACA due to fear, misinformation, lack of language access, among other reasons.”

Reva Gupta, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Initiative Asian American and Pacific Islanders, stressed the barriers to DACA and its importance for undocumented immigrants, saying “While AAPI community members may face barriers to applying such as fear, stigma, and a lack of awareness, it is also important that we are aware of the positive impact DACA can have… According to the Center for American Progress and the National Immigration Law Center, two out of three DACA recipients who are working have found jobs with better pay, which has translated into people being able to help their families financially. Over half of those with DACA have also found jobs that better fit their education and training. And overall, wages among DACA recipients have increased 45 percent.”

Stigma is not the only barrier to DACA for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. A general American perception that all undocumented immigrants are Latino has also contributed to the issue.

Juliet Choi, Chief of Staff of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, argued that a national focus on Latino immigrants and DACA has led many AAPI immigrants to believe the program is not for them. Choi remarked that when discussing DACA with AAPI immigrants, she might hear comments like, “That’s that program for Mexican children.” For Choi, the goal of Unitd States Citizenship and Immigration Services is to clarify and correct such misconceptions; “Our goal is to shine a light on the DACA process so the AAPI community can make an educated decision about their immigration journey using official resources and services available to them.”

Ivy Teng Lei, a DACA recipient, shares her experience at the NYC Media Roundtable on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Impact on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Photo by Julius Motal for CCEM

AAPI DACA recipients Jung Rae Jang and Ivy Teng Lei also spoke at the roundtable. Both argued that DACA has been life changing. Life before DACA meant a life in the shadows for Lei. She remarked that, "We never caused trouble, we never attracted attention and never asked for more than we were given." Today, she has protections due to DACA enrollment. Jang, an organizer with the MinKwon Center, also argued that the program has helped him greatly. Jang said that, "We came to this country because my mother wanted a better future for me... I am grateful for the opportunities that DACA has granted to me thus far." However, Jang also stressed that “we need organized communities.” Resources are available for those who want to take advantage of DACA. Annie J. Wang, Staff Attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said “We will continue to provide free legal assistance to those who are eligible for the original DACA policy.”

Ultimately, the process of change is gradual. James Hong noted that, “A law can be passed overnight, but a culture shift takes time.” It’s therefore all the more important that advocates and activists take a stand to help shift the perceptions held by immigrants, both in the AAPI community and outside of it. For Juliet Choi, the onus is on those with power to help those who have been systematically disempowered: "It's the young folks across our country who impressed upon me that this program changed their lives... What more can we do to assure our communities to step forward?"


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