A year after a deportation reprieve became available to undocumented youth, analysts are noticing a trend: Very few Chinese immigrants are applying for it.
“We suspected this was the case, that there would be low numbers,” said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney from the Immigrant Rights Program at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco who has worked with many Chinese applicants.
Mexican youth make up the largest number of those eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and also had the highest rate of applications, with 64 percent or 637,000 applications according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). But the absence of China from the list of the 20 countries where most DACA applicants came from was a surprise to researchers — especially since Chinese rank in ninth place in terms of eligibility.
“Even though Chinese are eligible, they’re not applying at a high rate to appear in the statistics the Department of Homeland Security put out,” said Jeanne Batalova, MPI’s senior policy analyst and demographer. “Some did apply, but they didn’t make it to the top.”
MPI estimates that more than 15,000 Chinese youth are eligible to apply for deferred action. The information released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration and Services (USCIS) doesn’t show how many Chinese youth have applied.
Other nationalities with low application rates included Filipinos (16 percent of those eligible applied for DACA) and Dominicans (14 percent). Chinese participation fell below 10 percent, with fewer than 1,400 applicants.
‘Fearing for my family’
It took Amy Lin two months to decide to apply for deferred action. She was concerned about how the deportation reprieve would affect the rest of her family.
“I was fearing for my family because they don’t have the same protection,” said Lin, a 21-year-old who came to the United States from Taiwan when she was 12. “That’s the same for a lot of Chinese and Asian undocumented people.”
Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education (ASPIRE), an organization Lin volunteers with in San Francisco, has been working on getting information to undocumented Asian youth to apply for deferred action — but it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s like outing yourself to the public and community,” Lin said.
Lin has come across Chinese youth who are reluctant to apply due to fear of immigration authorities locating their immigrant family members, not being able to afford the $464 application fee, language barriers or simply a lack of access to information.
The challenges faced by Chinese youth to apply for DACA are similar to those of other immigrant groups.
More than 1 million young people in the United States could be eligible for the DACA program but only a little over half a million have applied since the benefit became available on Aug. 15, 2012, according to the MPI report.
The role of ethnic media
Advocates say one possible explanation for the low participation of Chinese youth could be related to a difference in media coverage among various ethnic communities.
“I think coverage in the Latino community on TV and the newspapers on immigration issues is far more thorough than in the Chinese press,” Prasad said.
Major Spanish-language TV networks like Univision and Telemundo provide daily, if not hourly, updates on immigration reform and DACA, even reporting live from workshop sessions and town halls.
Betty Lin, a reporter for the World Journal in Washington, D.C., explained that most Chinese American ethnic media outlets cover immigration and DACA in response to news events, but they don’t see as much demand from their readers to learn about it.
“They are (more) interested in things that happen in China,” she said.
Prasad has another plausible explanation for the low number of applications: Some might be waiting for immigration reform to pass in Congress and since DACA doesn’t have a deadline, they don’t see it as urgent.
“I think a lot of people are going to wait and see what happens with immigration reform, so it doesn’t make sense for them to apply for deferred action and then pay again for a legalization application,” Prasad said.
The undocumented stigma
In recent years, “Dreamers” — young people who came to the United States as children — have challenged U.S. immigration authorities by “coming out” as “undocumented and unafraid.”
But the message doesn’t seem to have the same resonance among all communities or generations.
Immigration advocates underscore that there are divisions among Chinese immigrants — just like with Latinos — when it comes to those who apply for legal documents and those who remain undocumented.
“It’s hard for people to come out and say they’re undocumented, because they’re afraid of repercussions of what people in their community will think,” said Susan Hsieh, a membership manager and spokesperson for Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco.
“We have a lot of work to do in terms of getting rid of the stigma of being undocumented,” she said.
Prasad adds that it isn’t just undocumented immigrants who are cautious.
“I don’t think there’s a feeling that they are completely safe,” said Prasad. “We see older clients in Chinatown that are very afraid that if they don’t get their citizenship, their green card will be taken (away).”
Some parents and older generations may be reluctant to see their kids apply for DACA, Prasad said. Part of the concern, he added, comes from the U.S. history of discrimination against Chinese, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act made Chinese ineligible for citizenship and imposed restrictions on their migration and work in the United States all the way until 1943.
“There’s a lot of collective fear in the community,” Prasad said.
Language barriers also represent a challenge to those who are seeking legal help.
“If you’re outside a metropolitan area, you will have difficulty getting legal services,” Prasad said.
Finding interpreters who speak Mandarin and Cantonese at the level that they can explain legal terminology, which can be a challenge in cities, is often more difficult in rural areas.
The whole family
Although he knows of no instances in which immigration authorities went after the families of DACA applicants, Prasad says the decision of whether to apply for deferred action is one that must be considered in terms of how it will affect the whole family.
When Amy Lin first heard about DACA, she went home to tell her mother. Lin, who was raised by a single mom who worked as a caregiver, said it was a relief to be able to help her financially.
“I told my mom this is something that I can apply (for) and get a work permit. She was very happy,” Lin said.
She explained it to her mother, who is originally from Burma, in a mixture of Mandarin and Burmese, since her mother’s English is limited.
“I was fortunate that she supported me,” she said.
But at the same time, Lin has mixed feelings about the benefit she got under DACA, which she calls a “baby step.”
“Every time I walk home,” she said, “I feel so much shame that I wasn’t able to do enough for my family.”