Georgia’s surging Asian population is becoming more vocal in the national debate about overhauling U.S. immigration laws, holding news conferences, lobbying congressmen and marching in rallies.
Asian activists are also employing some unorthodox tactics in support of comprehensive immigration legislation. Among them: posting photos of their pet dogs and cats — and even rodents — online with messages urging people to call their congressmen.
Others joined an “international food celebration rally” for their cause Thursday in Lawrenceville, using ethnic cuisine to showcase the diversity in Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall’s 7th Congressional District.
Not all of them agree on the best approach toward immigration, and the reasons for their activism vary. Some want to see Congress create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Others strongly oppose that. Still others emphasize unclogging the nation’s legal immigration system.
The debate over these issues often focuses on Hispanics. And that makes sense since most foreign-born residents living in the U.S. are from Latin American countries.
At the same time, Asians say they have traditionally kept a lower profile on the issue because of the stigma some in their communities attach to illegal immigrants. They also don’t have much voting power in Georgia. At least not yet.
Asians, for example, made up only 1 percent of Republican primary voters in Woodall’s district in 2012. The district is so heavily Republican that its congressional elections are decided in GOP primaries.
But many Asians are stepping up their activism as their numbers rise sharply. Between 2000 and 2010, their numbers in Georgia grew by more than 80 percent, from 173,170 to 314,467. Still, that represents only 3.2 percent of the state’s population.
Asians also make up only a small fraction — about 1.2 million — of the immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Most of the rest are Hispanic.
In a novel move last month, the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center announced a social media campaign focused on pets. The Norcross-based group urged people to post photos of their pets online in support of the effort. People responded with pictures of their cats, dogs, hamsters and even a squirrel and a chicken.
“We are trying to make sure that elected officials understand that this is an issue that is important to voting Asian citizens,” said Helen Ho, the center’s executive director.
Ho’s group supports providing a route to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S., although other Asians and groups see that as rewarding people who broke the law at the expense of those who have waited years to immigrate legally.
This month, Ho’s organization and the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta hosted a luncheon for a group of young Asian immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children.
One by one the immigrants — who live in California, Illinois and Virginia — shared emotional stories about the problems they have endured living in the U.S. illegally. Calling themselves “Dream Riders” — after the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era — the group traveled across the nation this month in support of comprehensive immigration legislation.
“What does it mean to be undocumented?” said Kevin Lee, a Korean immigrant and Los Angeles resident who has received a two-year deportation deferral from the government. “It means living in the shadows, never speaking about your status, never telling anyone about a part of who you are. It means being in fear of deportation constantly. That never leaves the back of your mind.”
In the audience sat So Woon Chang, an 18-year-old high school senior living in Gwinnett County. Her family illegally brought her from South Korea to the U.S. when she was a young child. In June, the government granted her a two-year reprieve from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which marked its one-year anniversary Thursday. She wants Congress to make it possible for her and others like her to become U.S. citizens.
“We come here to work hard to get our education,” she said. “Most undocumented students are good students who will contribute to society. I believe I am more American than Korean.”
Not all Asians in Georgia agree on this issue. Eugene Yu’s family immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teenager. A Republican businessman living in Augusta, he is now running for the U.S. Senate and firmly opposes granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants.
“You can’t just give them amnesty,” he said. “No. Period.”
Several groups that share the same view are mobilizing in Georgia. Members of Numbers USA — which supports reducing immigration — and tea party activists are planning to make their voices heard at congressional town hall meetings this month.
“This whole thing is colorblind,” said John Litland of Marietta, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates enforcement of U.S. immigration and employment laws. “It doesn’t matter if you are Asian or Hispanic or a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian.
“Illegal is not a nationality. It’s anybody from any country that is in this country without permission, without the right to be here. It crosses all different ethnic groups.”
Others say the key to reducing illegal immigration is streamlining the legal immigration system, now beset with massive backlogs. About 4.3 million hoping to immigrate and who have relatives in the United States were waiting for family-sponsored visas to live here legally as of Nov. 1. Some have waited for years, others decades.
Such long waits could encourage illegal immigration, said Travis Kim, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta. Immigrants, Kim added, “have the desire to make a better life for themselves and for their families.”
“They have a strong will to make things better,” said Kim, a Marietta resident who came here from South Korea on a student visa about 30 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. “Therefore, whatever they do will add more value and make our country stronger than ever.”
Woodall, the Republican congressman from Lawrenceville, confirmed he has heard from Asian constituents on this issue in recent weeks. He opposes creating a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants and is instead focused on overhauling the legal immigration system.
“There is no question that our illegal immigration problem is related to the failures of our legal immigration system,” Woodall said. “What does it mean that you can do it the wrong way and folks will turn a blind eye and let you go to work today, but if you try to do it the right way you may be waiting 20 years to get here?”
“If we approach this issue from ‘What is good for America?’ — I promise you the outcome is going to be that a robust legal immigration policy is good for America.”
Asians in the U.S. and Georgia
Nationally, the Asian population grew by 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, increasing from 10.2 million to 14.7 million. As of 2010, Asians made up about 5 percent of the nation’s total population.
Georgia’s Asian population grew by more than 80 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 173,170 to 314,467. Asians made up 3.2 percent of the state’s population in 2010. Here’s a breakdown of Georgia’s Asian residents as of 2010:
Asian Indian, 96,116
Other Asians, 49,227
Source: U.S. Census
There are about 11.1 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Most are Hispanic. About 1.2 million are Asians. Here’s a breakdown:
76 percent are Hispanic
11 percent are Asian
8 percent are white
5 percent are black
Source: Pew Hispanic Center
Last year, the Obama administration started granting work permits and two-year reprieves from deportation to immigrants who were brought here illegally as young children. Most who have been accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program came from Latin American countries. But thousands came from Asian nations. Here’s a breakdown:
El Salvador 20,744/15,328
South Korea 7,347/6,440
*As of June 30.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services