Asian Americans* are the fastest-growing immigrant population in the United States today. According to 2011 Census data, almost half of all immigrants in the United States—18.2 million—came from Asia. This group overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama for re-election—by 68 percent—and cares deeply about fixing the immigration system.
This support for immigration reform is critical as the Senate moves to take up an immigration reform bill, S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Currently, family sponsorship is the most common way that Asian immigrants arrive in the United States, with 55 percent of Asian immigrants coming through the family-visa system in 2012. However, while S. 744 creates new legal pathways for immigrants to enter the country, it also threatens family reunification by removing entirely the allocation for siblings of U.S. citizens.
May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It is a celebration of the cultures of this diverse group, as well as an opportunity to educate the public on the past and present contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the social fabric of America. As the month-long celebration wraps up, here are the facts you need to know about Asian Americans and immigration.
Asian Americans are the new face of immigration
Asia now represents the largest sending region for immigrants. In 2010, 36 percent of new immigrants to the United States came from Asia, compared to 31 percent from Latin America. These numbers mark a dramatic departure from just a decade ago, in 2000, when new Hispanic immigrants outnumbered Asian immigrants three to one. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, growing 46 percent over the past decade.
Growing political clout
Asian Americans are a growing political force, with an electorate that increased 128 percent between 1996 and 2008. In the 2012 election, Asian Americans turned out in large numbers for President Barack Obama, providing 1.5 million votes for his re-election. This election also marked a significant shift for groups such as Vietnamese Americans and Filipino Americans, groups that have historically identified as Republicans: They supported the president by 61 percent and 62 percent, respectively. And looking toward the future, the Asian American electorate is expected to more than double by 2040.
Strong support for immigration reform
Asian Americans strongly support immigration reform, with 58 percent in favor of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And with 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants from Asia—roughly 12 percent of all unauthorized immigrants—immigration is an important and personal issue to this community. In addition, Asian immigrants are drivers of naturalization: In 2012, 4 out of 10 of the top countries providing new American citizens were in Asia, contributing 34 percent of all naturalized individuals last year.
Family unity is key
Family sponsorship is the most common pathway through which Asian immigrants arrive in the United States. Under current immigration law, immediate relatives such as parents, spouses, and children of U.S. citizens can immigrate outside of numerical limitations, and other relatives, such as spouses and children of permanent residents, adult married children, and the siblings of U.S. citizens, are subject to a cap of at least 226,000 visas per year. In 2012, 55 percent of all Asian immigrants who became permanent residents, or green card holders, did so through the family-preference categories.
But while many Asian immigrants come to the United States each year, many would-be immigrants—mothers, brothers, children, and other relatives—are stuck waiting for a visa slot to become free. There are currently 1.8 million Asian family-based visa applicants waiting to be reunited with their families living in the United States—36 percent of all people in the visa backlog. Waiting periods for people from the region can stretch into decades: Immigrants from China and India can wait as long as 12 years, while those from the Philippines can wait up to 23 years.
The Senate bipartisan “Gang of 8” reform plan creates flexible legal channels for immigration and eliminates this backlog. But it also threatens family reunification by removing the current category for the siblings of U.S. citizens and by placing age caps on adult married children of citizens. As Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) pointed out in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, siblings are an integral part of the family structure who “help each other find jobs, provide emotional and financial support and care for each other’s families.”
The Senate immigration plan would also put the approximately 267,000 people in the United States who are both undocumented and LGBT identified on a pathway to citizenship. It does not, however, include provisions for binational same-sex couples to have the same right to sponsor their partners as heterosexual couples. With 15 percent of the LGBT undocumented population coming from Asia, LGBT inclusion in immigration reform is a serious issue for the Asian American community.
Education and the DREAM Act are also critical
As a group, Asian Americans hold high levels of education: 49 percent of Asian adults ages 25 and older hold a college degree, higher than any other race or ethnic group. But this “model minority” myth hides great distinctions between groups. Half of all Vietnamese, and more than 60 percent of Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian adults ages 25 or older, for example, do not have more than a high school degree. Even more importantly, this myth marginalizes the needs of unauthorized Asian immigrant students.
More than 200,000 unauthorized Asian Americans in the United States are eligible for the DREAM Act—roughly 1 in 10 DREAMers—which would provide legal status for unauthorized immigrants who came to the country at a young age and who complete high school and some college or military service in the United States. The DREAM Act—provisions of which are currently contained within S. 744, the Senate immigration reform bill—would ensure that young aspiring Americans, including those from Asia, have access to the American Dream.
Asian Americans comprise a growing share of the immigrant population and represent diverse communities with varying social, economic, and political circumstances. Their voices on critical issues such as immigration reverberate to all immigrants. The Senate immigration reform plan is not perfect, but it would put the 1.3 million unauthorized Asian immigrants on a pathway to citizenship and help ensure equality and inclusion for this community.
Tram Kieu was an intern with the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress.
* The term Asian American includes any person from Asia living in the United States from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent/South/South Central Asia as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.