Not The Token Undocumented Asian American

By: Carla Navoa, IYJL Organizer

This past weekend, I attended the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Collegiate Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. A mere week after submitting my application, I received a call from the Chicago JACL Chapter director about being selected to attend the conference (along with 13 other Asian American students from all-across the country, mainly from the east and west coasts.)

Apart from being one of the few to represent “the fresh coast” (phrase credit to Nathan Ryan), I was also considered a “unique case” due to my undocumented status.

Although I’m constantly reminded of the limitations of being undocumented, I don’t often encounter situations anymore where I get called a “unique case.” Here in Chicago, I’m surrounded by undocumented immigrants on a daily basis: IYJL, other organizers, and students I meet at various colleges and high schools—my community of support.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, issues kept coming up regarding my transportation arrangements (aka greyhound hell), risks in traveling without a state ID, and not being able to get security clearance to visit the White House. I grew more and more anxious about entering a space in which I could potentially be singled out and made to feel inferior (story of my life.)

One of the first conversations I had on the way to our opening dinner:

Me: yeah, I took the bus.
Me: um, because I can’t fly.
Girl 2: wait, what really? Why not?
Me: Did you read my bio? I’m undocumented.
Girl 1 & 2: Oh.

They proceeded to subtly turn away in an awkward effort to avoid further discussion on the topic. Way to halt conversation, Carla. After “coming out” to people more times than I can even count, I forget how taken aback people are when hearing these words said so bluntly, devoid of any attachment to the loaded label.

On our first night, we went out to an upscale Thai restaurant and were joined by a speaker from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Side Note: I felt totally bougie being in Washington, D.C. this time around. All the other times I went last year, I stayed in either a musty church hall or a dilapidated hostel. Props to JACL for the hook up.

Anyway, from the very beginning of the conference—from the first dinner on Thursday up until the last lunch on Sunday—I continuously raised concerns about the lack of visibility and pressure on elected officials coming from the Asian American community on the issue of immigration. We all know we gotta take ownership of this issue too.

Fun Fact!

Department of Homeland Security Undocumented Population Estimates (2009):

  • 300,000 Filipinos (4th largest)
  • +200,000 Indians (6th largest)
  • 200,000 Koreans (7th largest)

That ain’t nothing.

I saw this conference as my chance to challenge the so-called “experts” in the areas of immigration and civil rights advocacy. I don’t claim to know it all, but I do know that I should have been learning from the folks working on these issues at the policy level seeing as though they hit home. But most of my questions were met with generalized statements reiterating the challenge in organizing the Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) community around immigrants’ rights. Duh, I’m well aware of this. I live it everyday. But I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one dissatisfied with the succinct and trite responses from the facilitators.

Even though my dissatisfaction did incite frustration, I didn’t let it affect the way I interacted with my fellow conference participants. I still joined them on evening outings where we wandered around downtown D.C. in a fruitless search for Busboys and Poets Café and later on, the search for the perfect fro-yo spot.

During our heart-to-heart chats, I was surprised at their receptiveness to my immigration-related preaching. I say that because most of them are third, fourth, or even fifth generation and come from privileged background. But a few of them, from what I perceived, became immersed in the discussions we shared about changing the discourse around immigration in the APIA community. Brainstorming to the max.

A couple folks seriously wanted to focus on undocumented immigrant issues at their school in California and wanting to collaborate on this effort. We even came up with an awesome acronym for the campaign: APIA DESIRE!

Imagine the shirts: This is what you DESIRE. (Democracy, Equality, and Success through Immigration Reform and Education)

Nothing makes me happier than working with passionate and eager activists. I’ve got a whole lotta love for the APIA community. I do hope with all my heart that we get somewhere with this collaborative effort to really breathe life and youthful energy into the Asian American Movement through the Immigrants’ Rights Movement. I’m so over being the forgotten minority. And dying to connect with my fellow undocumented APIAs out there. I know I’m no token.



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