Advancing an Asian Agenda for Immigration Reform

Asian American Policy Review

Quan, Katie (2003). Advancing an Asian Agenda for Immigration Reform. Asian American Policy Review. Vol. 12.
Courtesy of Asian American Policy Review.


Immigration policy is one of the most volatile topics of our times. Prior to 11 September 2001, the Bush administration was on the verge of agreeing to a path-breaking proposal for legalizing undocumented immigrants. However, just after September 11, that momentum halted, and immigration policies have instead become more restrictive and punitive, as evidenced in the secrecy provisions of the PATRIOT Act, the citizenship requirements of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, and lowering of entry allotments for refugees.

Although many post-September 11 policies are targeted directly at Asian immigrants from Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, little has been heard from Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities about their views on these matters. Even prior to September 11, their voices on national immigration policy issues such as legalization were not well known, despite the fact that Asian Pacific Islanders account for 31 percent of immigration to the United States between 1991 and 2000 (Immigration and Naturalization Service 2002a). Moreover, other concerns particular to API communities have not been heard at all.

To begin a dialogue on the immigration policy concerns of Asian Pacific Islander workers, the Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) at UC Berkeley joined with community and union partners to sponsor a conference entitled “Advancing an Asian Agenda for Immigration Reform” in March 2002. The conference was attended by 130 representatives of community and labor organizations, primarily from Northern California, but also including representatives from New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Sponsors included the Asian Community Immigration Clinic, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Alameda Chapter, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, Chinese Progressive Association, Filipino Civil Rights Advocates, Filipinos for Affirmative Action, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local2, Labor Immigrant Organizing Network, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Northern California Citizenship Project Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, and Sweatshop Watch.

Planning the focus of the conference was the first challenge, as the Asian Pacific Islander community is made up of people from diverse countries with different issues. Planning committee member Lillian Galedo of Filipinos for Affirmative Action observed in her opening remarks:

“We are extremely diverse-Chinese with 2.7 million. Filipino with 2.4 million, and Indian, the fastest-growing Asian group who doubled in the last decade, are at 1.9 million. Fourth are Vietnamese at 1.2 million, and Koreans at 1.08 million are fifth. But, today the Asian community also encompasses Taiwanese, Pakistani, Afghans, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Tai, Hmong, Indonesians, Malays, Mien, Cambodians, Laotians, Maldivians, Burmese, Okinawans, Nepalese, Singaporeans, Bhutanese, and Iwo Jimans… Different Asian communities have organized on their ethnic specific issues, but few of us were working comprehensively on issues impacting our combined communities.”

Over the months prior to the conference, the Labor Center along with the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Filipinos for Affirmative Action, and the Labor Immigrant Organization Network convened San Francisco Bay Area Asian community advocates in a series of meetings to discuss the most pressing immigration policy issues facing their communities. On the basis of these discussions, eight key issues were identified for the conference to address: the impact of September 11, citizenship requirements for airport baggage screeners, backlogs for family reunification, legalization, sex trafficking, labor smuggling, contract labor, and refugee programs. Each discussion session was designed to produce recommendations for policymakers, researchers, and advocates.

The conference was by all accounts an important beginning. Participants were buoyed by a sense of historical significance; this was the first time in recent decades that API advocates had come together to discuss immigration policy. They took seriously the responsibility towards their constituencies, as stated in Galedo’s keynote speech:

“Today we need to view ourselves as leaders in the national discourse that shapes immigration reform. We need to be our own advocates, be our own messengers to Congress where these reforms are made.”

This paper provides an overview of these eight issues and highlights some recommendations that emerged from conference discussions. Where historical background and general context are not clear, the author has supplemented conference transcripts with researched information. It is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the many complexities of U.S. immigration policy, nor does it even fully reflect every idea raised at the conference. This paper does, however, provide us with a framework for addressing a number of immigration issues of concern to API communities that have not been given adequate attention in the national debate on immigration reform.

This conference was designed to integrate API voices into the broader immigration agenda. To achieve this, API organizations need to educate their base about immigration policies and their impact on the Asian community. Moreover, the community’s concerns surrounding immigration matters must be must be heard and heeded by legislators. Their voices can be strengthened by quantitative data as well as qualitative research that humanize the debate around immigration reform.

Following each topic section are three sets of recommendations tackling these issues. The recommendations emerged from the conference and are aimed at organizers, policymakers, and researchers. Implicit throughout these recommendations is the understanding that in order to generate more substantive API influence on immigration policy, organizers, researchers, and policymakers need to build stronger multi ethnic and multiracial networks. Additionally, as Congress debates INS restructuring, conference participants stressed that the agency’s reforms must address current family reunification and refugee backlogs, its substandard quality of service, and its suspect enforcement practices.

Conference Proceedings

September 11 Impacts: Discrimination


The USA PATRIOT Act was enacted one month after September II in October 2001 and gave the government sweeping new powers to detain and deport immigrants without hearings or access to attorneys. This contributed to a sense of fear and anxiety in API communities across the country, putting immigrants on notice that they were no longer safe from arbitrary suspicion. According to Ai-jen Poo, plenary speaker from the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence in New York, “Starting in October, South Asian neighborhoods were invaded by FBI personnel, going door to door to gain information on residents, or searching through everything from a crumpled up brown paper bag in the street to young people walking to the corner store.”

Thousands of Central Asian and South Asian men have been detained and deported, and one person has died in detention. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, bias incidents against Muslims soared after September 11, and 57 percent of all Muslims reported bias or discrimination during that period (Seattle Times 2002). Those who have not been detained, even if they hold green cards or are naturalized citizens, fear that they might be. In light of this treatment, some Arab and South Asian immigrants have chosen to go underground to escape the arbitrary detention and “military trials” that the PATIOT Act allows. This is indeed an ironic twist, since many of them came to the United States precisely to escape the lack of democratic due process and political repression that they faced in their home countries (Poo 2002).

Unfortunately, Asian immigrants are only too familiar with discrimination based upon arbitrary suspicion. Sixty years ago during World War II, based upon suspicion that Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were aiding the Japanese government, our wartime enemy, the U.S. government rounded up all Japanese immigrants and U.S. citizens of Japanese descent on the West Coast and forced them into internment camps for the duration of the war. No Japanese American was ever found to be aiding the enemy, and today the Supreme Court has ruled that Japanese Americans are entitled to redress and reparations for the property loss and mental suffering that they endured (Yamamoto et al. 2001). Yet the PATRIOT Act now gives the government authority to repeat the same type of discriminatory actions towards Arab and South Asian immigrant Americans.

As Ai-jen Poo noted:

“As immigrant communities, our histories, present, and futures are deeply connected to the fates of our people in the Third World who are faced with the ongoing war against terror. U.S. foreign policy has in many ways determined the character of immigrant communities in the United States. The process of U.S. military intervention has compelled the migration of generations: our mothers, our cousins, our sisters and brothers, ourselves. The memories of these wars are fresh in the minds of many in our communities. Let us also learn from these memories as we begin these discussions about immigration, what our communities need, and what is possible in this new context after September 11.”

Conference participants called for the repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act

Another example of the erosion of immigrant civil rights since September 11 can be found in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 (ATSA). Passed by Congress just two months after September 11 in an attempt to target one source of security breach, the ATSA requires that all airport baggage screeners be U.S. citizens. This legislation also mandates that screeners who were formerly employed by private companies now become federal government employees. Federalization of screeners took place in November 2002, and only those who were U.S. citizens could re-apply.

Nationally, an estimated 25 percent of the country’s 28,000 screeners were immigrants. However, in the San Francisco Bay area, some 75 percent of screeners at the three major airports were immigrants, mostly from the Philippines (Bay Area Organizing Committee 2002). At the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), where 80 percent of the one thousand screeners were Filipino immigrants who were not yet naturalized,1 the citizenship requirement had a devastating effect as many workers lost their jobs (Washington Post 2002; Los Angeles Times 2002).

No screeners were connected to the attacks of September 11, and there is no evidence to show that non-citizen screeners perform better or worse than citizen screeners. Citizenship is generally not equated with effective security; non-citizens are allowed to serve in such security-sensitive areas as the U.S. Armed Forces and the National Guard. Therefore, ATSA’s new citizenship requirement is widely perceived by the API community as targeting immigrant screeners unfairly, in effect blaming immigrant workers for the events of September 11, according to Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance President Luisa Blue (Blue 2002).

In addition to discriminating against API immigrant workers, the ATSA’s provision for federalization of airport screener jobs may also undermine a union organizing victory that screeners at SFO won to improve their wages and working conditions. Previously, screeners were paid little more than minimum wage and had no health insurance or other fringe benefits. However, after they joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and won a collective bargaining agreement in 2000, their wages jumped from $6.25 per hour with no benefits to $13 per hour with full benefits. Turnover rates plummeted from 95 percent to 15 percent. As turnover declined, morale and productivity increased (Reich et al. 2002; Bay Area Organizing Committee 2002). While it is still not clear whether screeners’ jobs will be union jobs once federalized, most of the Filipino immigrant workers who fought hard to organize a union and improve their conditions will not be able to enjoy the fruits of their struggle.

Beyond baggage screeners, there has already been suggestion of extending citizenship requirements to other sectors, including computer specialists at the Department of Defense, many of whom are Asian immigrants. SEIU and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed a lawsuit on behalf of screeners at SFO and Los Angeles airports,2 and Representatives Solis, Pelosi, and Honda have proposed a full repeal of the citizenship requirement (HR 3505). In mid-November 2002, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi of Los Angeles issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the citizenship requirement for airport screeners, questioning the constitutionality of the law. Although this injunction may eventually have a widespread impact, the decision will not have an immediate effect because most immigrant screeners have already lost their jobs (Egelko and Gathright 2002). The final outcomes for both the ACLU lawsuit and the Congressional repeal proposal are still difficult to determine.

Participants at the conference strongly denounced the anti-Asian immigrant implications of the ATSA and called for the repeal of its citizenship requirements.

Restricting Refugee Entry

Immediately following the September 11 attacks, the federal government banned entry of all refugees for two months. Once the ban was lifted, the annual allotment went down from eighty thousand to seventy thousand. According to Phillip Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center, resettlement experts predict that close to half of the available refugee slots will go unused in 2002 (Nguyen 2002).

These slots stay open because of refugee admittance and processing backlogs, especially after the events of September 11. At the time the refugee ban was imposed, approximately twenty-two thousand refugees were approved for resettlement in America, and by the date of the conference, the vast majority was still waiting to enter the United States. Nguyen (2002) discussed how INS officials responsible for conducting background checks of refugees have yet to resume these screenings in many countries because of security concerns.

Even before September II, refugees were required to pass through more stringent security screenings than others seeking to immigrate to this country. Conference participants expressed concern that many of the measures now blocking refugee admissions are carried out in the name of security but do not in fact make Americans safer.

Other Discrimination

In addition to discriminatory laws and regulations that target Asian immigrants, conference participants reported post-September II discrimination in employment opportunities and access to services.

In Silicon Valley, the effects of the general economic recession and decline in the information technology sector had already led to widespread layoffs, especially of South Asian and Taiwanese H-1 B contract workers. After September 11, the economic health of Silicon Valley suffered further decline, and the entry of Asian H-1B workers halted. The events of September 11 also led to discrimination against South Asians in hiring. According to Raj Jayadev (2002), instead of being the ··model minority,” Asian immigrants became the “model terrorists.”

In New York City, Ground Zero is less than a mile from Chinatown, where more than fifty thousand immigrant workers earn their living in the garment and tourism industries. According to an interim report by the Asian American Federation of New York, Chinatown businesses such as garment, restaurant, retail, and jewelry suffered declines in the 50 percent range during the three months after September 11. Twenty-three percent of the working population in Chinatown were laid off, with total wage losses estimated at $114 million. Many Asian immigrants who were eligible for emergency services had difficulty accessing those services because of language barriers (Asian American Federation of New York 2002).

Conference participants expressed the need to monitor anti-Asian hiring discrimination for possible future action, and to increase advocacy for access to services related to September 11.

Conference Recommendations

Policy Recommendations:

  • Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act
  • Repeal the Aviation and Transportation Security Act’s (ATSA) citizenship requirement for airport screeners

Recommendations for Organizers:

  • Organize against the PATRIOT Act; reach out to and work with Arab American and civil rights organizations to:
    • Educate the public about injustices committed against Asian immigrants in the aftermath of September 11
    • Monitor and challenge unlawful INS detentions associated with the “War on Terrorism”
    • Oppose anti-immigrant measures that derived from the PATRIOT Act, such as:
      • Depulization of local and state law enforcement officials as INS officials and other collaboration between local law enforcement with the FBI and INS
      • Further militarization of the US. border
  • Organize opposition to the citizenship requirements of the ATSA.
    • Build a campaign to repeal citizenship requirements
    • Strengthen existing programs to assist immigrants in the naturalization process
    • Oppose the expansion of citizenship requirements to other industries

Recommendations for Researchers:

  • Research and publicize the economic, social, and political impacts of September 11 on Asian immigrants
    • Research the economic impact of widespread layoffs due to citizenship requirements
    • Research the relationship of citizenship to quality security

Compare the amount of money spent on military, police, and other security forces aimed at “stopping terrorism” to federal relief funds for direct and indirect victims of September 11.

Linking Elimination of Backlogs with Legalization


The single biggest concern among conference participants was cleaning the log of those waiting to reunite with their families in the United States, which is not surprising since more than 90 percent of Asian immigrants to the United States arrive through family-based immigration (Narasaki 2001). For Asian immigrants in particular, family reunification is a critical component of immigration policy because Asian cultures define family to include the extended rather than just the nuclear family. Families also provide critical economic and social support in impoverished immigrant communities (Narasaki 2001; Hing 1993). The INS’s family reunification program is based upon a system of preferences and quotas. A U.S. citizen may bring his/her spouse, unmarried minor children, and parents to the United States without limitations. All other family members, however, must go through one of the four preference categories: 1) unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens, 2) spouses and children of lawful permanent residents, 3) married adult children of U.S. citizens, and 4) brother and sisters of U.S. citizens.

Because no single country is allotted more than 7 percent of visas awarded in a year, families from large countries or countries with high out flows (for example the Philippines, India, and China) usually have very long waits. The average wait for brothers and sisters of citizens is twelve years, but for Filipinos it can be as much as twenty-two years (Narasaki 2001).

Therefore because the INS sets quotas far below demand, and because it does not have the capacity to process applications on a timely basis, family members of Asian immigrants regularly wait many years before they can come to the United States. Since the program’s inception in 1965, this waiting period has steadily increased and is now at an all-time high. As of 1997, more than 3.5 million people were waiting to reunite with relatives in the United States (INS 2002b; Narasaki 2001). Asians account for more than 45 percent of all those waiting to enter the country comprising 60 percent of the 1.5 million applicants in the brother/sister category and 49 percent of the 721,000 applicants (National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium).

Permanent residents may also petition for certain categories of relatives to come to the United States, and their length of wait may differ from that of citizens. Since the backlog to petition an unmarried child averages 13.5 years for Citizens but only 8.5 years for permanent residents, many Filipino immigrants often choose to delay application for citizenship until their children arrived through a permanent resident petition. Ironically, San Francisco Bay area Filipino airport screeners who chose to delay application for citizenship because of INS backlogs are ow faced with an immediate citizenship requirement for their jobs, and many will have to choose between delaying citizenship for faster family reunification or becoming citizens (Blue 2002).

The INS’s quota system was purportedly designed to bring about family reunification. However, it has been widely criticized for being flawed and inadequate and in fact causing lengthy family separation rather than reunification. According to Karen Narasaki of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, “INS has clearly failed in its function and mission to deliver adequate services to its customers.”

While some Asian immigrant rights groups have called for an entire system overhaul in the quota system, conference participants also expressed concern that such overhaul may include proposals to eliminate the brother/sister preference altogether, a recurring threat that was most recently seen in the 2000 Republican Party platform.

All conference participants agreed that the immediate priority was for the INS to act quickly to eliminate current backlogs.


Asian Pacific Islander immigrant communities have many undocumented among them, and according to plenary speaker Cathi Tactaquin of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), it is important to “come out of our denial” and address the legalization and amnesty debate. Many API undocumented immigrants entered the country as temporary workers, students, or tourists and are overstaying their visas, joining the more than 40 percent of all undocumented workers with expired visas (Djajic 2001).

According to Tactaquin, it is important to understand legalization and other migration issues in a global context. Twenty percent of the world’s migrants are undocumented. Another 20 percent are refugees who never fully achieve documented status. The drive for migration is most often due to poverty and political repression and is thereby not an option that most migrants would chose if they could achieve decent living conditions in their homelands. Thus, the migrants’ diaspora cannot be viewed as the root problem, but rather a symptom of broader economic, political, and social ills.

The momentum for legalization legislation was at its height before September 11, and immigrant communities, labor, and government representatives were actively engaged in discussing various proposals. After September 11, discussions of legalization changed but did not stop entirely. Representative Richard Gephardt introduced the Earned Legalization and Family Unification Act in the fall of 2002. Even though Gephardt’s proposal did not pass, efforts such as this that tie together legalization and backlog issues are much needed (Anderson 2002). In addition, momentum continues for related forms of regularizing undocumented status, such as legislative campaigns to allow undocumented persons to apply for drivers licenses and campaigns to allow students who have been in the United States for at least five years to legalize their status and thus qualify for in-state college tuition.3

Latino immigrant communities have been the most vocal about legalization, while the API community has not weighed in heavily on this issue. On the other hand, the API community’s priority concerns regarding elimination of backlogs in family reunification and refugee processing are not addressed by most advocates for legalization. This presents a potential for conflict and division among immigrant communities unless both legalization and eliminating backlogs are linked and advocated by all immigrant rights activists. Otherwise, as conference participant Ada Wong of SEIU Local 616’s home care division pointed out, “How can we convince an Asian worker whose children have been waiting for twelve years in the backlog to support the legalization of a Latino undocumented worker who has been here for only three years?”

In reality, the struggle to eliminate backlogs is related directly to the call for legalization. Many people who came to the Untied States without documents did so because their cases were pending in the INS’s load of backlogged requests. Many Latinos-especially Mexicans-are among the millions waiting years in the backlogged system. In fact, often within the same family there are members who came to the United States and overstayed their visas, as well as those still waiting in their home countries, waiting to be processed in Asia or Latin America (Tactaquin 2002).

In her plenary speech, Cathi Tactaquin proposed:

  1. Asian immigrants need to have a collective response to policies such as legalization, and
  2. API immigration activists need to pro-actively engage with other groups who are facing these same issues.

Conference participants expressed a strong resolve to link the efforts to clear backlogs with the legalization movement.

Conference Recommendations

Policy Recommendations:

  • Create new policies for the legalization of undocumented workers as well as measures to eliminate family reunification backlogs, including:
    • Enacting broad legalization provisions
    • Enacting related “mini-legalization” legislation, such as student adjustment and drivers license proposals
    • Implementing immediate administrative measures to shorten backlogs
    • Revising current immigration policy to relieve backlogs by increasing quotas and issuing temporary visas for hardship cases

Recommendations for Organizers:

  • Reach out to legalization and family reunification backlogs advocates and link efforts to:
    • Reach out to legalization advocates and activists address family reunification backlogs and link efforts to:
    • Initiate cooperative strategy discussions among legalization advocates and those working to reduce backlogs
    • Build grassroots support for both legalization and an end to backlogs at the local and state levels

Recommendations for Researchers:

  • Research undocumented workers in API communities
    • Gather statistics
    • Gather stories of immigrant families in order to humanize those seeking legalization
    • Assess economic impact of legalization on API communities
    • Propose new legislative and other strategies that would protect and assist undocumented workers
    • Articulate links between legalization and elimination of backlogs
  • Investigate the source of the backlogs in the current INS family reunification system
    • Study the economic, sociopolitical, and psychological effects of the backlogs on families both in the United States and abroad
    • Propose short-term solutions to eliminate backlogs
    • Propose long-term solutions for the improvement of the family reunification system

Coerced Migration and Exploitation

Each year four million people worldwide are brought across national borders against their will to work in some form of severe exploitation or servitude, and among them are many Asians and Pacific Islanders (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking 2002). Some are impoverished workers who have paid intermediaries to bring them to the United States to work, only to find that conditions here may include confiscation of passports and physical incarceration, as in the case of Thai garment workers in El Monte (Economist 1995; Noble 1995).

Others are deceived into thinking that their passage and their work are legitimate, only to find that they are being smuggled in and may be forced to engage in sexual servitude.4 Still others are trafficked for domestic servitude under the INS’s annual allotment of four thousand slots issued to diplomats for domestic servants, and some four to six thousand others are entrapped in servile marriages when mail-order and Internet dating services turn into domestic worker or sexual slavery nightmares (Foo 2002).

The conference included separate panel presentations and workshops on sex trafficking and labor smuggling, however, most of the discussion centered on sex trafficking.

Sex Trafficking

With globalization-and the freer flow of labor, money, goods, and services over borders-trafficking has developed into a lucrative business that generates billions of dollars annually. Only narcotics and the arms trade are more profitable for large, organized crime networks that operate worldwide. The U.S. government estimates that of the one to two million people who are trafficked for sex annually, fifty thousand end up in the United States, and the majority are Asian. Exact figures are hard to determine, but the federal government estimates that these numbers are growing (Shekar 2002).

For the women who are coerced into the sex trade or are forced to perform sex acts for their employers as part of other employment, working conditions are horrific. They work long hours, and a portion of their wages is withheld to pay for their passage. They are kept in complete isolation, passports confiscated and their movement severely restricted by their employers. Many do not speak English or any Asian language common in the United States, and none have free contact with the outside world (Shekar 2002).

In the case of South Asians, many may be from a social caste that is lower than that of the exploiters. Moreover, many fear returning to their home countries because their experience in the United States carries a stigma that is unacceptable to their native communities. They also fear that reporting sex traffickers to the authorities may result in grave risk of further violence to their families (Lee 2002).

When a sex-trafficked woman does want to seek help, she is often confronted by numerous problems such as lack of language access, lack of services, and inadequate legal protection. Usually she does not speak English, and often she may not speak Asian languages and dialects that are commonly translated in the United States. Few social services exist to help these women, and many existing social services lack staff trained to deal with the legal, mental, and cultural issues that arise for the exploited women. Moreover, the law does not definitively criminalize the exploiter, nor does it provide adequate “whistleblower” protection for the victims. Finally, coordination between various law enforcement, legal, and other government and social service agencies remain extremely cumbersome and daunting to navigate for anyone, let alone a monolingual immigrant woman without a passport (Shekar 2002).

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was passed during the Clinton administration in 2000. It provides for temporary visas and occasional permanent settlement for those who would suffer “extreme hardship” if forced to return to their home countries. In exchange, however, the victims must comply with “reasonable requests” for cooperation with law enforcement officers.5

To date, the law has had a limited impact. Trafficking victims are usually under tight control and extremely dependent on their captors, making it difficult for them to break free. Despite the existence of U visas, designed for crime victims, that prevent deportation and allow for eventual permanent residency, many trafficking victims are afraid to cooperate with the authorities for fear of deportation or retribution against their families back home. Since many sex-trafficked women come from countries where police collude with traffickers, they also find it difficult to trust law enforcement. Furthermore, it is challenging for victims to prove that they would face “severe harm” upon their return.

In February 2002, the Department of Justice reported that it had ninety-one trafficking investigations pending, representing a 20 percent increase over the previous year (Department of State 2002). Nevertheless, advocates for sex-trafficked women are concerned about the Bush administration’s commitment to implementation of Clinton-era policies. Already the INS has delayed the issuance of the necessary regulations to fully implement the law. Additionally there have been complaints that the INS treats workers who come forward as accomplices instead of as crime victims. Organizations such as GABRIELA expose and oppose the global sex trade that forces Asian women and children in economically marginalized countries to engage in degrading and often life-threatening labor in their home countries and abroad. According to GABRIELA representative Jane Margold, “Our aim is to create the political will to secure basic freedoms for the world’s more vulnerable victims. [However], it is not clear that post-September 11, an administrative impetus still exists to move against sex trafficking on a national or international basis.”

Conference participants resolved to engage more actively around this issue and formed an email listserv of activists interested in this.

Conference Recommendations

Policy Recommendations:

  • Strengthen visa programs that protect victims of coerced migration and simplify their amnesty process
  • Increase penalties for traffickers
  • Mandate special training for the INS to respond to trafficking cases

Recommendations for Organizers:

  • Raise awareness of the global proliferation of trafficking and smuggling and the systems that support these activities
  • Build collaboration among attorneys, service providers, trained translators, and cultural experts to assist coerced migrants
  • Develop rapid response teams in local and regional areas
  • Create shelters and other new services for coerced migrants
  • Encourage former sex workers to organize and advocate for workers trapped in the sex industry
  • Build strategic partnerships with legal and human rights groups in the countries of origin to educate people about coerced migration and its consequences

Recommendations for Researchers:

  • Research the trafficking industry, people, and networks involved, primary sending countries, channels for entering the United States, and consequences for trafficking victims and their families
    • Study limitations and loopholes of laws that are supposed to protect coerced migrants and determine the impact of existing penalties for traffickers
    • Research linkages between trafficking and U.S. involvement (i.e., militarization) in sending countries

H-lB Workers

Over four hundred thousand immigrants are currently working in the United States on H-1B visas,6 most of them in the high-tech industry. Under heavy lobbying from high-tech employers, Congress has steadily raised the annual quota to a current 195,000, not including those visas issued to nonprofits, universities, and the government. More than two-thirds of all H-lB petitions approved in 2000 were for Asians, and more than half of these were for Indian and Chinese nationals (INS 2000).

According to Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley DEBUG, despite the image of affluent high-tech workers, the H-lB program actually gives employers access to a pool of cheap labor-highly skilled, temporary foreign workers with limited labor rights often hired at lower salaries than their U.S. counterparts. Because the employer must sponsor the visa applicant (and thus can ostensibly deport the workers by firing them), the system is rife with opportunities for employers to exploit and threaten their employees.

Silicon Valley DEBUG has been trying to organize H-IB workers. Many H-lB immigrants mistakenly believe that they lack the right to organize unions because they are inappropriately classified as “independent contractors.” Unions themselves do not seek to organize H-lB workers because the labor movement has long opposed H-lB and other employment-based immigration programs including guest worker programs. Jayadev argued that the AFL-CIO should view these workers as unfairly exploited, and rather than spurn them, existing unions should seek to organize them.

Conference Recommendations

Policy Recommendations:

  • Change H-IB provisions to disengage employment from immigration status
  • Change employer sponsorship requirement in order to allow H-IB visa holders more opportunity to switch employers and industries
  • Hold companies and their CEOs accountable for labor violations at both contracting and subcontracting levels

Recommendations for Organizers:

  • Reach out to H-lB workers–offer assistance and support for their efforts to organize and lobby
  • Identify the major difficulties that H-lB workers face, and prioritize them
  • Identify allies within the labor movement and community organizations
  • Link across ethnicities, and work to defend the rights of all guest workers including those in the agricultural sector ‘
  • Educate the public about the negative impacts of the H-1B program, including harms caused by draining a pool of well-educated professionals away from “sending countries”
  • Develop new proposals for employment-based immigration, including decoupling terms of employment from immigration status, and establishing “whistleblower protection” for those workers who speak out against exploitative conditions

Recommendations for Researchers:

  • Research the effects of temporary worker programs on workers’ rights
  • Document abuses in the current H-1 B system, including misuse of the independent contractor designation
  • Examine the rights of different categories of temporary workers, including agricultural guest workers
  • Propose new legislation that would guarantee the employment rights of temporary workers

Refugee Programs

As defined in the Refugee Act of 1980, a refugee is any person afraid to return to his/her country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Since 1975, the United States has resettled 2.4 million refugees. Between 1975 and 1980, one million refugees entered from Southeast Asia and close to half of them settled in California (Hicks 1998).

The president and Congress set the annual number of refugees accepted into the United States. Each region of the world receives a quota, with a certain number of slots left unallocated for use in emergencies. In 2002, that limit was set at seventy thousand, a decline from ninety thousand in 2000 and eighty thousand in 2001. Quotas for Asian will regions will comprise 22 percent of that total.

According to plenary speaker Phillip Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center the main concern of the API refugee community is the decline in numbers of refugees accepted each year. The government argues that reduced tensions in Southeast Asia and the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union have led to reduced demand from these key regions. But continued political and economic instability still drive millions of people to seek refuge, and overall demand in these countries continues to far outstrip U.S. admittances.

Refugee communities are presently lobbying elected officials to increase annual quotas for refugees. They are also trying to reverse the public image that refugees are potential terrorists (Nguyen 2002). Philip Nguyen and other refugee advocates called upon API immigrant activists to join their effort. Conference participants acknowledged that immigrant rights activists and refugee rights activists must learn more about each other’s issues and combine their efforts in a more systematic way.

Conference Recommendations

Policy Recommendations:

  • Increase the cap on annual refugee admittances to at least year 2000 levels
  • Eliminate backlogs in refugee admission processing

Recommendations for Organizers:

  • Advocate for clearing backlogs in refugee processing and restoring admission quotas
  • Educate the public about the unique and urgent needs of refugees as well as the recent decrease in numbers of refugees admitted to the United States
  • Link with other immigrant groups to incorporate these messages into larger pro-immigrant strategies and campaigns
  • Organize around other refugee concerns, including access to public benefits

Recommendations for Researchers:

  • Research the impact of refugee admittance policies
  • Examine refugee admittance in relation to terrorism
  • Calculate the economic contribution of refugee communities in the United States

Conclusions and Next Steps

The conference helped generate a long overdue discussion of immigration policies’ impacts on Asian communities. An overarching theme was the need to build stronger multiracial coalitions and networks in order to strengthen our voice. This applies to both coalition building between API community and advocacy organizations as well as constructing networks with allies outside the API community.

Perhaps the most far-reaching new recommendation was the call for linking the campaign for legalization of undocumented workers with efforts to eliminate backlogs in family reunification. Other recommendations responded to current issues such as opposition to the PATRIOT Act and the Aviation Security Act. Some participants brought new perspectives to longstanding issues, such as Raj Jayadev’s views on the H-1B issue. Still others called for a stronger voice on Asian community issues, such as recommendations related to sex-trafficking and refugee backlogs.

Although the one-day conference began fruitful dialogues, many issues were left for future discussion. Some topics, such as organized smuggling of undocumented workers and the employer sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 were addressed somewhat in the plenaries and workshops, but not in great depth. Other controversial issues within the Asian community, such as whether to support the continuation ofH-1B and other employment-based temporary contract labor programs, were raised but not resolved.

Participants consistently stressed the need for API participation at immigration policy forums to better integrate the concerns of the API community into broader immigration agendas. At the same time, they spoke of the need to strengthen their own constituencies’ voices on these immigration policy issues. Many emphasized the importance of communicating with legislators in order to hold them accountable. Others reminded us to use Asian ethnic media to educate and mobilize immigrant communities, while also utilizing the mainstream media to influence the broader public and policymakers.

Another universal recommendation was INS reform: improving its quality of service, reducing backlogs, addressing enforcement problems, and making agents more sensitive to the concerns of API immigrants. As Congress debates INS restructuring, these issues need to be addressed.

Participants departed with enthusiasm about working together to continue discussions began at the conference. They agreed to organize similar gatherings in other regions, beginning in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and anticipated that these gatherings would uncover new issues and offer new ideas for reform. Participants that these efforts continue to move forward.

In the Bay area, groups agreed to meet on a quarterly basis to strengthen collaboration. For the short term, Bay area representatives decided to collaborate on the airport screeners’ struggle and continue education and advocacy efforts for legalization and INS backlog reduction.

Appendix A: History of Asian Pacific Islander Immigration

First records of Asian immigration to the United States date to the 1700s, when groups of Filipinos escaped imprisonment from Spanish galleons in New Orleans and fled into the bayous of Louisiana. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that contract laborers from China began to arrive in large numbers to work in Western mines, on the transcontinental railroad, and on Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

First records of Asian immigration to the United States date to the 1700s, when groups of Filipinos escaped imprisonment from Spanish galleons in New Orleans and fled into the bayous of Louisiana. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that contract laborers from China began to arrive in large numbers to work in Western mines, on the transcontinental railroad, and on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Hostility, driven by a sense of economic threat as well as cultural racism, resulted in passage of exclusion laws, beginning with the Page Law of 1875, which effectively banned immigration to the United States by Asian women. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred all immigration of male Chinese laborers for ten years, and the ban was extended indefinitely in the early 1900s. This was the first time that Congress enacted legislation to restrict a nationality group from immigrating to the United States and also represented the beginning of a “national origins” immigration policy.

The Chinese were replaced by Japanese contract laborers in California and in Hawaii, but Japanese migration was soon curtailed by the 1907-1908 Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japanese governments. Subsequently in the 1910s, several thousand Asian Indians and Filipino labors migrated to Hawaii and the mainland United States. However, all immigration from Asia was banned in 1917 when Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act to include other countries in the “Asiatic barred zone.” In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Quota Law, which prohibited the entry of groups ineligible for U.S. citizenship, thereby banning all Asian immigrants who as a “race” were not eligible for naturalization.

Asian exclusion laws were repealed in 1943 and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 eliminated the Asiatic barred zone but still restricted immigration to two thousand people from within the Asia-Pacific triangle. Prior to World War II, the Japanese population numbered 285,000, Filipinos numbered 100,000, Chinese numbered 100,000, and Asian Indians did not surpass a few thousand.

Aside from policies that discriminated against their entry, numerous laws dis-criminated directly against Americans of Asian ancestry in the United States. In 1913, the Alien Land Law was passed in California and denied Asians the right to landownership. During World War II, Executive Order 3066 forced 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into internment camps for the duration of the war. Until 1952, almost all Asian immigrants were denied the right to become naturalized U.S. Citizens.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress overhauled the country’s immigration system with the Immigration Act of 1965. This law repealed the previous national origins quota system, set a quota for Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time, and established a framework for entry based reunification of family members. As a result, the number of Asian immigrants rose significantly and accounted for approximately 30 percent of all immigration by the 1990s. However, there remains a twenty thousand per country limit on immigration, regardless of the sending country’s size or demand. This has resulted m extremely long backlogs for those seeking to immigrate from Asia exacerbated the problem in 1990 when it cut by half the allotted visa slots for adult children of U.S. citizens. This occurred at a time when the waiting lists consisted mainly of children of Filipino veterans who became U.S. citizens through their service in World War II.

Refugees from Southeast Asia also constitute a segment of Asian immigration in the past several decades, following U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s. The Refugee Act of 1980 was a response to this influx and for the first time placed numerical limits on refugee admissions.

Currently, the 2000 census shows that 11.9 million people of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry currently live in the United States, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 255,860 Asians entered the country in 2000. From 1990 to 2000, the numbers of Asian immigrants increased by 48 percent..

Appendix B: Conference Agenda

Advancing an Asian Agenda for Immigration Reform
March 8-9, 2002
Oakland, California


8:00 – 8:30 Coffee and registration – Lillian Galedo

8:30 – 9:00 Welcome and context

9:00 – 10:00 PANEL “Social and Political Immigration Policies”

(Moderator: Rand Quinn)
Backlog on family reunification: Frank Tse
Refugee programs: Philip Nguyen
Post September 11 civil rights issues: Aijen Poo
Citizenship requirements and job security: Luisa Blue

10:00 – 10:20 Plenary questions and comments

10:20 – 11:30 WORKSHOPS

Backlog on family reunification: Eric Mar
Refugee programs: Tho Do
Post–September 11 civil rights issues: Warren Mar
Citizenship requirements and job security: Rhonda Ramiro

11:30 – 12:30 Report back from the workshops

12:30 – I :30 Lunch

1:30 – 2:30 PANEL “Employment–Based Immigration Policies”

(Moderator: Gordon Mar)
Sex trafficking: Jane Margold
Labor smuggling: Nalini Shekar
Contract labor: Raj Jayadev
Legalization/amnesty: Cathi Tactaquin

2:30 – 2:50 Plenary questions and comments


Sex trafficking: Eunice Cho
Labor smuggling: Nikki Bas
Contract labor: Stacy Kono
Legalization/amnesty: Sonah Yun

4:00 – 5:00 OPEN CAUCUS

Videos: The New Americans and Uprooted
Immigration issues for the Filipino community
Others (sign up at registration table)


8:30 – 9:00 Coffee and pastries

9:00 – 10:00 Report back from strategy workshops (previous afternoon) (Moderated by Katie Quan)

10:00 – 10:30 CAUCUS REPORTS

10:30 – 12:00 NEXT STEPS (breakout)

Organizing: Weiling Huber
Policy and research: Katie Quan

12:00 – 1:00 Report back and concluding remarks: Katie Quan

Appendix C: Sponsors and Benefactors

Conference Co–Sponsors:

  • Asian Community Immigration Clinic
  • Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), Alameda Chapter
  • Center for Labor Research and Education (CLRE), UC Berkeley
  • Chinese Progressive Association (CPA)
  • Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (FilCRA)
  • Filipinos for Affirmative Action
  • Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), Local 2
  • Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION)
  • National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR)
  • Northern California Citizenship Project (NCCP)
  • Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN)
  • Sweatshop Watch

Conference Benefactors:

  • East Bay Community Foundation
  • Ford Foundation
  • Institute for Labor and Employment (ILE), University of California
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 250
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 535

Appendix D: Conference Participants

A Safe Place | Vicky Galbert
ACMHS/INCITE National | Isabel Kang
AFL-CIO Civil and Hwnan Rights Department | Matt Finucane
Alameda City, Social Services Agency | Victoria Urbi
Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA) | Smriti Rana
Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation | Jeffrey Ow | Katherine Toy
Annie E. Casey Foundation | William Wong
API Force | Desiree Aquino
Artist Revolutionary Workshop (AWOL) | Veronica Ang-Vong
Asian Health Services | Geline Avila | Phuong An Doan-Billings | Heather Ngai | Kim Nguyen I Dong Sinh | Clara Song
Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates (AIWA) | Ken Fong | Stacy Kono | Gin Pang
Asian Law Caucus | Helen Chen | Kyung Jin Lee
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) | Naoia Fanene
Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) | Mark Yoshita
Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon | Nathan Thuan Nguyen
Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) | Joselito Laudencia
Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum | Jennifer Villarnin
Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach | Ivy Lee | Kavitha Sreeharsha
Asian Perinatal Advocates | Charise Ho
Asian Women’s Shelter | Gita Mehrotra
California Governor’s Office –San Francisco Regional Office | Phung Pharo
California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative | Isabel Alegria
California Transplant Donor Network | Teresita Zaragoza
Catholic Charities of the East Bay | Sr. Elisabeth Lang
Center for Labor Research and Education (CLRE), UC Berkeley | Jeremy Blasi | Kate Blwnenthal | Sara Flocks | Anahita Forati | Warren Mar | Mary Purcell | Katie Quan | Alison Webber | Carol Zabm
Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) | Katy Nunez-Adler
Chinatown Community Development Center | Rev. Norman Fong
Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) | Angela Chin | Wendall Chin | Gordon Mar
City and County of San Francisco, Immigrant Rights Commission | Joaquin Gonzales | Diana Lau | Winny Loi | Dang Pharo
City College of San Francisco | Giulio Sorro
City of Berkeley | Yuko Leong
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) | Susan Alva
Coalition of University Employees (CUE) Local 3, Labor Committee for Peace and Justice | Michael–David Sasson
Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) | Ai-jen Poo
Community Law Center of Alameda | Susan Chacin
Colorlines Magazine, Applied Research Center | Tram Nguyen
Congresswoman Barbara Lee | Pedro Toledo
East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation | Maria Stella Sison
East Bay Community Foundation | Bob Uyeki
Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (FilCRA) | Angela Angle
Filipinos for Affirmative Action | Chris Cara | Rissa Duque | Lillian Galedo | Lisa Macapinlac | Rhonda Ramiro | Kawai Ulanday | Ed Valladares
Ford Foundation | Taryn Higashi
GABRIELA Network, Family Violence Prevention Fund | Marissa Dagdagan | Jane Margold
Global Exchange | Mariana Bustamante | Kale Fajardo
Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) 2850 | Wei Ling Huber
Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 2 | Tho Do
INS Watch –La Raza Centro Legal | Heba Nirnr
International Institute of San Francisco | Kevin Pimentel Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights | Philip Hwang Maitri | Nalini Shekar
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC) | Katherine Newell
National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support | Son Ah Yun
National Korean American Service & Education Consortiwn (NAKASEC) | SungKyu Yun
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) | Eunice Cho | Amoldo Garcia I Cathi Tactaquin
Northern California Citizenship Project (NCC) | Salli Fune | Gordon Mar
Refugee Network | Rahim Auram
The San Francisco Foundation | Dee Dee Nguyen | Ron Rowell
San Francisco State University | Eric Mar
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250 | Leon Chow | Elisabeth Ortega | Richard Rubio-Bowley
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local616 | Yan Qun Chen | King D.Cheung | Nuan Kan Chun | Shaolian Huang | Xin Fang Huang | Chun Naan Kan | Lan Leong | Puling Li | Shenglan Liang | Sun Liang | Jin Sui Liu | Karen Orlando | Ivan Ortega | Hou Susang | Ada Wong | He Hui Xian | Cheng Xue Bin | Zhilong Zhange
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790 | Luisa Blue | Daz Lamparas
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Western Region | Josie Camacho
Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) | Elaine Lai | Chi Pharo | Rand Quinn
Silicon Valley De-Bug | Raj Jayadev
Social Policy Research Associates | Traci Endo Sonoma State University | Charlene Tung
Sweatshop Watch | Nikki Bas
UC Berkeley | Carmina Brittain | Janelle Chan | Mytoan Nguyen | Annie Ro | Leslie Yang
UC Berkeley Asian Political Association | Andy Ho | Desiree Yoo
UC Berkeley Labor Occupation Health Program | Rafael Espinoza
UC Los Angeles Labor Center | Kent Wong
UC Los Angeles Law School | Jen Lai | Christopher Punongbayan
University of Chicago | Mae Ngai
University of San Francisco | Geraldine Nisperos
Women of Color Resource Center | Miriam Louie
Working Partnerships USA | Wei Kuan Lum
Zellerbach Family Fund | Lina Avidan
Individual Participants | Jesiros Bautista | Birendra Dhakal | Rosario Hernandez | Sonny Le | Thuy Thi
Nguyen | Blesilda Ocampo | Alfredo Quito | Virginia Quito | Frank Tse


  1. For an ironic twist on why some Filipino screeners had chosen not to become naturalized citizens, see page 7.
  2. See http://www.aclu.orgllmmigrantsRights/lmmigrantsRights.cfin.
  3. See for information regarding student legalization and for information on drivers licenses.
  4. See, for example, The New York Times. 2002. Tale of Sin on West Coast with Asians Smuggled In, 19 September.
  5. The T visa is designed for human-trafficking migrants who cooperate with law enforcement against those responsible for their enslavement. It allows sex-trafficked migrants to remain in the United States if it is determined that they could face “extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm” if returned to their home countries. After three years in T status, sex-trafficked migrants may apply for permanent residency. Similarly, the U visa is a three-year nonimmigrant visa that also enables victims of crime to remain in the United States if they are willing to assist with prosecution. A key difference between the visa types is that the T visa is designed specifically for victims of severe forms of trafficking whereas the U visa encompasses many more crimes. Also, T visa holders can be eligible for public assistance whereas U visa holders can get work authorization but are not eligible for public benefits (see the Department of Justice Web site:
  6. H-1B is a visa classification for immigrants in specialty occupations. This visa status is nonportable, meaning that an H-1 B holder is obligated to remain with their initial sponsoring employer unless they received permission from INS to switch employers. Additionally, they cannot apply for permanent residency unless their employer files sponsorship.


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