Asian Americans have experienced different levels of trauma and adversity while navigating the U.S. immigration system, and Southeast Asians in particular have become familiar with being targeted at heightened levels over their immigration status.
Southeast Asians—who come from places like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, East Timor, and Brunei—represent the largest refugee community ever to be resettled in the U.S. after they were forcefully displaced in the 1970s by occupation in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. This includes nearly 300,000 Hmong refugees and their descendants, who fled Laos in the late 1970s and 1980s as a result of being recruited by the CIA to fight in the “Secret War.” There are roughly 12.3 million Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants in the U.S., and a large percentage of them have lived here for more than 20 years. Today, there are more than 2.7 million Southeast Asian Americans living in the country.
An overwhelming majority of Southeast Asians in the U.S. are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Roughly two-thirds of Asian Americans and one-sixth of Pacific Islanders were born outside of the U.S.
Many come from countries that suffer from the ongoing destabilizing legacies of colonialism and Western “military intervention,” including oppressive regimes, economic depression, and civil wars, only to experience a different type of adversity once they resettle in America. This includes living in impoverished neighborhoods, fighting against discriminatory immigration legislation, problems moving through the education system, higher risks of being diagnosed with mental health disorders, and being especially vulnerable to the school to prison to deportation pipeline.
For years, Asian Americans in general have been fighting against proposed legislation that threatens their ability to bring their families to the U.S. As it stands, family members can sponsor a relative who migrates to the U.S. without numerical limits on how many they can sponsor. Even so, Asian American immigrants face extremely long family visa backlogs, the largest of any immigrant group. Today, roughly 1.4 million Asian individuals are waiting to reunite with their families. Immigrants from the Philippines have the second-largest number of visa backlogs, and immigrants from Vietnam have the fourth-largest. These backlogs are largely due to the failure of government officials to process all of the family-based preference visa requirements from previous years.
The Trump administration has proposed breaking up families through deportations and by ending family-based immigration all together, which is the most popular migration pathway for relatives of U.S. citizens. The RAISE Act, which was introduced in 2017 and then reintroduced in 2019, was endorsed by the president and would have a dramatic impact on Southeast Asians, who heavily benefit from family-based immigration. The bill proposed major cuts to lawful immigration and a huge blow to family immigration. The RAISE Act would limit sponsorship to only spouses and children, and would revoke green card status for the parents of adult children.
In April, Trump temporarily suspended immigration to the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic, paused admissions by refugees, and suspended some visa services. The proclamation is even more restrictive than the RAISE Act, blocking permanent residents from bringing their families to the U.S. on green cards. The proclamation also favors immigrants from Western countries and blocks roughly 34% of immigrants from the Middle East, and most parts of Asia.
Although Asian Americans in general have a high education completion rate, there are some differences across segments of the population. Southeast Asian immigrants have lower educational attainment rates than other Asian American subgroups, Black Americans, and white Americans. Research has found that many Southeast Asians experienced some achievement gaps in the educational system compared to their peers, leading to lower high school and college graduation rates. According to the 2010 Census, 34.3% of Laotians, 38.5% of Cambodians, and 39.6% of Hmong adults in the U.S do not have a high school diploma.
“Due to the model minority myth, people often view all Asian Americans as successful. However, that is not the reality for many in our community,” said Gisela Perez Kusakawa, a National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Law Foundation Community Law fellow at Advancing Justice.
There are three main factors that can set Southeast Asians behind in school: language barriers, systemic inequality, and financial difficulties. Since a large percentage of Southeast Asians are first or second generation immigrants, many children are forced to attend school before they’re fluent in English. The limited number of bilingual counselors and staff in public schools makes it especially difficult for students to grasp the material.
Additionally, many are unable to go to college due to financial reasons. The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center says that about 18% of Cambodian Americans, 12% of Laotian Americans, 27% of Hmong Americans, and 13% of Vietnamese Americans live below the poverty level. The lack of resources force many Southeast Asians to live in underfunded, low-income neighborhoods that lack things like libraries or tutoring centers, which could help students excel in problem areas.
The school to prison to deportation pipeline
Decades after resettling in America, Southeast Asian communities are still vulnerable to the “school to prison to deportation pipeline.” This is partly due to the lack of resources Southeast Asian communities receive after resettling, and over-policing in low-income areas. Data that evaluates the Southeast Asian community while incarcerated is limited, which is partly due to many of them being labeled as “other” in race categories once they enter the prison system. After being released from prison, many Southeast Asians face the threat of deportation, which can come years after serving their sentences.
“Deportations do not just affect the individual—they impact families and whole communities,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. “Southeast Asian Americans have escaped genocide and war, and seeing our loved ones torn away from us again, back to countries we fled, is devastating.”
Under the Trump administration, deportation numbers have dramatically risen among Southeast Asian communities, who are up to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions. Between 2017 and 2018, deportation of immigrants from Cambodia rose by more than 279%. In that same time period, there was a 25% increase in deportations back to the Philippines and a 58% increase in deportations back to Vietnam. In 2018, more than 16,000 Southeast Asians received final notice of deportation, a majority of which were based on old crimes. Immigrants from the Philippines had the second-highest number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests between 2015 and 2018, and the highest number of deportations among Southeast Asians.
Mental health disorders
Similar to other immigrant populations, Southeast Asians experience a high level of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study found that roughly 70% of Southeast Asian refugees receiving mental health care were diagnosed with PTSD. Cambodians, along with Vietnamese migrants, have reported experiencing robbery, rape, or torture upon fleeing their home country. But even for children of migrants, mental illness has proven to be a problem.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Asian Americans born in the United States are at higher risk for mental illness as a result of assimilating to American culture and its clashes with Asian values, usually enforced by elder family members.”
Researchers believe the PTSD experienced by many Southeast Asians partly stems from “intergenerational trauma” in which stress and trauma experienced by refugees gets genetically and socially transmitted to descendants.
Some of the most harmful legislation impacting Southeast Asian communities was passed in 1996. That year, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act expanded the grounds for which immigrants could be detained and deported. Congress also passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the list of deportable crimes.
“These laws created an unjust immigration enforcement legal system that targeted, profiled, and incarcerated immigrants, predominantly people of color,” said Perez Kusakawa. “The devastating impact of these immigration policies can still be felt today as immigrants have been criminalized nationwide, families separated from each other, and whole communities disrupted.”
But there’s still hope. A new bill, the New Way Forward Act, would undo many of the provisions in the 1996 laws by offering deportation relief and restoring due process to immigrant communities.
“We need to act now,” Perez Kusakawa said. “The impact of these deportations and detention is the separation of families and harm to many of our communities. We encourage people to ask their members of Congress to support the New Way Forward Act and to share the stories of those impacted to bring to light the inhumane and unjust treatment of many Southeast Asian immigrants.”
Many immigrant communities are also backing legislation like Rep. Judy Chu’s (D-CA) Reuniting Families Act, which would reduce family immigration backlogs and push for the reunification of immigrant families.
But despite the ongoing and seemingly never-ending adversity, many people in the community are still optimistic that Southeast Asians will continue to persist and thrive.
“I am hopeful that in my lifetime, I’ll see an end to policies that displace our people—through the dedication and tireless work from grassroots, impacted leaders and community-based activists, and the growing commitment from elected officials to not only stand with us but to speak up and take action in support of our communities,” said Dinh. “I celebrate the progress that has already been made toward equity that our [Southeast Asian American] communities deserve, and most of all, I celebrate the intergenerational resilience from our Southeast Asian American families to continue to meet adversity with incredible courage.”