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How undocumented Asian Americans who can't vote are getting people to polls

“I may not ever have a vote, my voice may not matter at the ballot box. But there are other ways and other avenues for me to have a voice and to have some sort of an influence,” activist Jose Antonio Vargas said.
Jose Antonio Vargas speaks in New Orleans in 2018.
Jose Antonio Vargas speaks in New Orleans in 2018.Erika Goldring / WireImage file

During the election cycle, New York City resident Tony K. Choi thrust himself onto the front lines of civic engagement, working on former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s campaign and phone banking among other efforts to get people to the ballot box.

Choi, the son of a nail salon worker, has devoted a significant portion of his time this year to advocacy efforts. But the activist, who came to the U.S. from Korea when he was 9 years old, is undocumented and — because of his immigration status — does it all without having the right to vote.

From time to time, he says, it all “feels heavy.”

"I Am An Immigrant: A Celebration Of Our Stories", A Live Performance Celebrating Immigrants And The Immigrant Heritage Of The United States
Tony Choi speaks in Los Angeles in 2016.Vivien Killilea / Getty Images file

“There's definitely moments where I feel that in my heart of hearts, that we don't get a voice. But I think there's a good corollary there: unless we insert ourselves,” he told NBC Asian America.

Choi is part of a growing number of politically active Asian American undocumented immigrants choosing to participate in other forms of civic engagement. The activists say this high-stakes election could change the future of their communities and families and that makes it impossible for them to sit this one out, regardless of their inability to vote.

Their activism, however, is being carried out alongside a frustration of being virtually invisible, in addition to cultural stigmas tied to their immigration status.

“I think we have contributed to the public really understanding what's at stake in this election,” Jose Antonio Vargas, who founded Define American, a nonprofit that aims to shift perceptions of immigrants and an immigrant himself, said. “So in that way, we have a voice. What I push back against is this idea that voting is our only voice. It's not.”

Asian Americans make up the fastest-growing major undocumented demographic in the country, tripling over a 15-year period, from 2000 to 2015. The roughly 1.7 million Asian Americans comprise more than 15 percent of the total population of unauthorized immigrants.

During this election, many from the community involved themselves in “get out the vote” efforts through virtual movements, phone banking and text banking. They also worked on presidential campaigns in outreach and data, among many other roles, concentrating efforts on the primaries earlier in the year. The activists say that their presence is important since the issues of the Asian American community are often overlooked.

Cheska Perez, a Filipina undocumented immigrant who worked on former presidential candidate Cory Booker’s campaign during this election cycle, explained that, like the general Asian American population itself, the undocumented segment is particularly diverse. So fighting for the cause can take different forms, prioritizing a wide range of topics from access to health care and health care equity to family separation. For many undocumented activists, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is a critical issue. Both Choi and Perez themselves are recipients.

While the Supreme Court ruled in June to reject the Trump administration’s termination of DACA, a July memo from the Department of Homeland Security partially rescinded the program. The DHS announced that it would reject any new applications and would only grant one-year renewals. Those from Asian countries have some of the lowest enrollment rates, and Vargas fears another Trump term could exacerbate the issue.

“The fact that there's so many people who were eligible for DACA, who want to be able to apply, but because the Trump administration is not accepting DACA applicants right now, haven’t been. I mean, I think about that increased level of fear and how paralyzing that is,” he said.

While their own futures in the country are more likely affected by policy decisions around a pathway to legal citizenship for them, the activists noted that one of the key issues in their advocacy is reforming the legal immigration system, particularly family-based immigration, which they say is under attack by the Trump administration.

Trump has made several efforts to cut down on family-based immigration, including in July when he moved to block new green cards to prevent more people from immigrating to the United States. Roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of Asian immigrants come to the U.S. through family-based immigration.

And of the more than 420,000 green cards that were granted to Asian immigrants in fiscal year 2017, almost 40 percent were given to immediate family members, while more than 20 percent were given to family-sponsored waiting list registrants. Vargas noted that given the mixed status among so many immigrant families, the issue is of top of mind for him and others in the undocumented community.

“A second Trump term will be an attack on the family-based immigration system that has welcomed and allowed for millions of immigrants, Asian families to come to this country. That's really the reality for my Filipino family. Right here in the Bay Area, there's more than 30 of us. And I'm the only one who's undocumented,” he said. “The undocumented issue cannot be divorced from the documented policies. We live within the same families.”

However, because immigration is framed as a predominantly Latino issue, representing and amplifying the struggles of Asian American undocumented immigrants can present an added challenge, Choi said. He acknowledged that oftentimes he’ll be forced into interactions in which he’ll have to be twice as loud to ensure the obstacles Asian American undocumented immigrants aren’t left out of discussion.

“I have to constantly remind people that this is an issue that affects Asian Americans greatly. In the context of the elections, I also have to remind them, even in these swing states, like Virginia, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona, undocumented Asian Americans all exists in those states,” he said.

But challenges to undocumented Asian American activism are not confined to external perceptions. One barrier can be shame that’s attached to an undocumented status within the communities themselves. In fact, shame, or more specifically the concept of “loss of face,” is such an integral part of Asian cultures, that nearly each one has a term for it.

“The concepts of stigma and shame play an important role in Asian Americans’ low service use. ‘Haji’ among Japanese, ‘Hiya’ among Pilipinos, ‘Mianzi’ among Chinese, and ‘Chaemyun’ among Koreans are terms that reveal concerns over the process of shame or the loss of face,” researcher Stanley Sue wrote in the Journal of Community Psychology. “Many Asian Americans tend to avoid the juvenile justice or legal system, mental health agencies, health services, and welfare agencies, because the utilization of services for certain problems is a tacit admission of the existence of these problems and may result in public knowledge of these familial difficulties.”

Perez says while she currently has a healthy relationship with her own family, she knows that many activists and others who choose to come out as undocumented are currently struggling with the potential impact on their families.

In the long run, her decision to expose her identity proved the right choice, she said. She was able to secure DACA for herself and her older siblings, get scholarships to attend college, support her family and add her own voice to the political process, Perez said. She also said her mom has gained interest in her work.

“She's really trying to also learn about what social justice is in her own context, and have those conversations with her siblings and relatives,” she said .

Looking back on the election cycle, Vargas says that there have been trying moments. Being involved without having the right to vote brings forth a complicated mix of emotions, but he tries to focus on what’s at stake, he said.

"It’s almost as if all of us are being pushed to the edge, at the edge. The moment is actually asking us to test ourselves. What are we really made of?” he said. “What are we doing so that we can be a part of the solution and not part of the problem?”

He added: “I may not ever have a vote, my voice may not matter at the ballot box. But there are other ways and other avenues for me to have a voice and to have some sort of an influence.”