A few years ago, I asked the students in one of my Asian-American studies classes whether they had voted in the 2016 election. Most of the students in the class identified as Asian-American and for many that year was the first time they had reached voting age. If they had not voted, I asked the reason.
Beyond the age requirement to cast a ballot in presidential elections, there are other reasons why the students in my classes might not be eligible to vote. Sometimes students are not eligible because they are visiting on international student visas or because they are permanent residents who came to the U.S. at a young age, and have not yet become citizens.
It was not until after I asked the question that I realized that one of my students who had not voted in 2016 was avoiding eye contact. A year earlier, the student had disclosed their status as an undocumented immigrant to me, and they clearly did not want to share the information with the class.
I had seen and often cited the startling statistic that one of every seven Asian-American immigrants were undocumented. I had been part of a group of staff, students and faculty advocating for resources for undocumented students on campus, and I had been to many immigrant rights rallies focused on DACA.
But that day I had allowed myself to teach that class as if none of the students in my mostly Asian-American class could be undocumented. And this is the problem with the current debates over undocumented immigration. Too often, even those of us with the best of intentions fail to consider that policies that affect undocumented immigrants affect each and every one of our ethnic and racial communities.
Maryland is home to over 415,000 Asian-Americans making up approximately 7% of the population. Around 266,000 of them are immigrants and around 39% of Maryland’s Asian-American population are limited English proficient. The issues of legalization and immigration enforcement are too often thought of only as a Latino issue. In fact, there are around 35,000 undocumented Asian immigrants living in Maryland.
The Maryland Trust Act (SB88/HB304) disentangles Maryland government services, including policing, from immigration enforcement and forbids government employees from inquiring into people’s immigration status. It will have a direct effect on Asian-American undocumented people in our state, who are too often overlooked in debates over immigration. And, this legislation is good for all of our communities because research shows that jurisdictions with community trust policies (also known as sanctuary policies) are safer than comparable jurisdictions without them.
A group of Asian-American activists have turned out in opposition to community trust policies at the state and local level in Maryland in the past with a variety of Trump-like talking points. This mobilization is troubling on multiple levels, but particularly because other opposing organizations such as Help Save Maryland have ties to national organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform that have white nationalist roots and seek to lower overall levels of immigration to the U.S. including legal immigration.
But these activists don’t speak for all Asian-Americans. A 2020 survey of Asian-American voters shows that 59% of Asian-Americans endorse a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and 55% support the government expanding health care to undocumented immigrants.
Asian-American voters are behind strong immigrant rights policies.
— JANELLE WONG
The writer teaches Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and is co-director of Montgomery County Progressive Asian American Network.