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Reshma Shamasunder's picture

I love the month of May. The flowers are in full bloom and the promise of beach days ahead is tantalizing. But there’s another reason May is so special – it’s a celebration of the heritage of Asian Pacific Americans and our long and diverse histories.

Amidst the incredible diversity of Asian American cultures  and experiences, there’s often a common thread: a deep commitment to family and strong ties to siblings, parents, and extended family members.

In fact, family is the cornerstone for many immigrant communities, and it’s also supposed to be a cornerstone of our immigration system. But ironically, a system that sometimes brings families together often tears them apart instead.

And as critical efforts to reform our immigration system pick up speed, many Asian American families are at risk of being left out – unless we speak out and share our stories.

First, let’s take a moment to reflect on the story of Asian Americans. It’s the quintessential immigrant story, with people from heterogeneous nations coming here to work and find opportunities for their family. And like other immigrants, Asian Americans have had to fight back against discrimination and injustice. Consider the Chinese Americans who helped build the transcontinental railroad in the mid 1800s, and then faced blatantly racist and discriminatory immigration laws in the 1880’s. Or the Filipino farmworkers who struggled side by side with Cesar Chavez for justice for all farmworkers in the 60’s.

Also in the 1960’s, our nation started to move away from the more discriminatory immigration laws of the past, and put in place provisions that honor  family ties.

I know how important these pro-family provisions are first hand. Without them, my whole childhood would have been different.

I’m the daughter of Indian immigrants who migrated to this country for work opportunities in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, my mother sponsored her young adult sister to immigrate to the US. My aunt is a nurse who has worked in this country for more than 30 years, contributed tremendously to our economy and community. Most importantly, she has ensured my siblings and I – all US-born– benefited from the gift of family. She was our only extended family member living in the US while we were growing up, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to become close to her. My aunt helped to raise us, and my own children are deeply attached to her.

Unfortunately, the current Senate Immigration Reform bill fails to recognize the importance of family for Asian American and other communities. Despite the attempts of Senator Hirono to offer amendments during the committee process, the current proposal eliminates the ability of greencard holders and citizens to sponsor their siblings and certain adult married children. If this proposal were in place when I was a child, my mother would not have been able to sponsor my aunt.

And that’s not the only threat to families. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, 1.3 million are from Asia. While the immigration reform bill is being debated, detentions and deportations of aspiring citizens are continuing at an alarming rate.

Case in point: Jagmohan Singh, an Indian immigrant, is married with three children. He works long hours at a convenience store and mistakenly failed to identify an underage buyer of alcohol. He was cited by an officer standing behind the youth. Jagmohan went to court, where they required him to take some training classes, but when he left the courthouse, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him. He has no previous criminal record and has been held in detention since February.  He was the sole earner in his family.  Since he’s been in detention, his family cannot afford to pay rent and bills and they have lost their apartment and are now living with relatives.

As immigration reform advances, we must halt the deportation of individuals like Jagmohan who will most likely be eligible for a pathway to citizenship under immigration reform. And we must create a bright line separation between our local law enforcement and ICE through measures like California’s TRUST Act, which would limit cruel and costly “holds” which unjustly trap aspiring citizens in local jails for extra time. Detaining and deporting individuals like Jagmohan only creates heartbreak and broken families.

As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage month and the contributions of diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to our culture, we also celebrate our history of family.  Our heritage cannot be separated from our immigration stories and the stories of our families. An immigration system that ignores family ties or seeks to separate families is not acceptable.  We can, and must, do better.


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