Asian Americans have been long stereotyped as “forever foreigners,” disinterested in engaging in civic life. But for many Asian Americans, political organizing has been a way to explore what the murky and plural identity of “Asian American” means and determine for themselves what their inclusion in the American fabric looks like. Now with the current spotlight on “anti-Asian hate,” Asian Americans are taking the rare opportunity of national attention to assert their presence in political and cultural arenas.
Virginia Director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) Sookyung Oh credits her political awakening to a work-study position with Asian Americans United (AAU) she took part in as an undergraduate student in Philadelphia. Oh had never questioned her lived experiences, or why her parents had to work multiple jobs to sustain their family; she just took for granted that it was how life was. At her interview, then-Executive Director Ellen Somekawa asked Oh about her childhood. When Oh replied that she “grew up doing things that lots of immigrant kids do,” like translating for her first-generation Korean parents and getting a job in high school to help pay for household expenses, Somekawa asked: “Do you think that’s fair?” It was a life-changing question for Oh.
“Here was this woman asking me a question that seemed to imply that that’s not how it had to be,” she said. “It was the most eye-opening conversation of my life.”
Engaging with her local Korean American community and peers during her time with AAU also introduced Oh to how state tools like colonialism and oppression shaped “how life was” for her as an Asian American in Philadelphia. And in the process of reevaluating her experiences and political awareness, Oh found a way home to her Korean heritage.
Other Asian American women organizers and community leaders whom Prism interviewed also forged new (or renewed) relationships to their identities through organizing within their respective communities.
Elizabeth Hanna Rubio, an ethnographer and volunteer with NAKASEC for years, is a multiethnicKorean American from New York City who never felt truly at home in her identity until she began organizing with Asian American communities in Southern California, where she moved for graduate school in 2015.
“I’m a literal product of war like a lot of Asian Americans who are here because of some sort of U.S. imperial pursuit,” Rubio said. “Because of [our] shared, broader anti-imperial vision, for the first time, I actually felt like I didn’t have to explain my being Korean to anybody in [Asian American organizing spaces].”
That feeling of common ground helps fuel Asian American participation in U.S. politics and culture, particularly with an incredibly diverse population of 23 million, inclusive of nearly 50 distinct ethnic groups that speak more than 100 languages. As of 2019, nearly six in 10 Asian Americans were foreign-born and many within these communities are segregated by language proficiency and difference in customs, both attributes of immigration. However, Asian Americans are arguably united by their largely homogenous treatment in this country—and U.S. interest and intervention in their respective homelands.
Asian Americans are also currently the country’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group and gaining political influence. According to the Census Bureau, Asian Americans had the most dramatic increase in turnout from the 2016 election to last November than any other major demographic. As a result, political parties are now courting Asian Americans ahead of next year’s midterm elections. They would do well to remember that Asian Americans have long turned to political organizing and advocacy as a way of shaping their place in America, and that many of the issues prioritized by Asian American organizers bring them into common cause with other communities.
Citizenship for all
Min Hee Cho, a community leader and a volunteer for the Chicago-based HANA Center—a NAKASEC affiliate that serves Korean American, Asian American, and multiethnic immigrant communities—is an undocumented Korean American, an identity in which she has often felt displaced on several levels.
“I don’t feel like I’m fully Korean,” she said. “Socially and culturally, I definitely feel more American, but I still feel weird about claiming that because of my legal status.”
Cho is a DACA recipient whose status has afforded her some protection when speaking up about immigration reform and being a voice for her community. Once a week, she meets with other undocumented Korean Americans in the Chicago area to go over legislative and campaign updates, and to check in on one another.
“We’re all sort of in that same third status: undocumented, Korean, American,” she said. “But I actually think it’s a very American thing to experience.”
Asian Americans are currently the fastest-growing undocumented demographic in the country. Like illegalized people across other communities who’ve settled in the United States, Asian Americans are vulnerable to violent removal should they be incapable of proving their worthiness for citizenship. While the issue of anti-Asian violence has been in the national spotlight, organizers have been working to redirect public appetite away from carceral responses, and toward recognizing that the same inherent structural violence in our criminal justice system is also embedded in our immigration system, and often prevents communities from seeking help.
“[Being multiethnic and Korean American] makes me hyper-attuned to the contradictions that emerge when you’re asking for inclusion into the very state that is responsible for your displacement,” Rubio said.
For example, days before President Joe Biden denounced anti-Asian violence after the murders in Atlanta last March, ICE deported 33 Vietnamese immigrants and refugees despite the president’s 100-day moratorium on deportations. Many were deported for decades-old convictions for which they had already served time, including Tien Pham, who had become a mentor in anti-violence programs over the two decades he spent at San Quentin State Prison before being deported back to a country he hadn’t known since childhood.
“Citizenship status isn’t something to be ashamed of or something that should be so taboo,” Cho said. “The more we talk about it, the more we can mobilize people in order to get citizenship for all.”
Decriminalizing immigration is one of NAKASEC’s principal priorities. Its Citizenship for All campaign aims to push Congress to carve a pathway to legalization for all 11 million undocumented immigrants through the budget reconciliation process—without carveouts for age, country of origin, or criminal backgrounds. But their demands don’t stop there: NAKASEC’s work aims to create space for “immigrant liberation outside the confines of state recognition.”
“With the Citizenship for All campaign, you’re trying to get papers, but you’re also trying to push back on what it means to be a citizen,” Rubio said.
Visibility through language access
It’s not just immigration status that has hindered many Asian Americans from connecting to the “American” part of their identities. Similar to other immigrant communities with limited English proficiency (about 42% of U.S. immigrants from Asia in 2019 reported limited English proficiency), the lack of language access is a chronic challenge to their visibility and participation in civic life.
Due to the pandemic, last year proved particularly difficult to reach vulnerable Asian American communities with limited to no English proficiency or computer literacy—from completing the census and voting, to applying for pandemic-related economic assistance and registering for the vaccine. The fallout with civic engagement due to language exclusion is particularly acute for older immigrant generations. With national attention fixated on the vulnerability of Asian elders out in public, organizers want to illuminate the structural obstacles that also bar them from participating in public life.
In Houston, Hyunja Shin Norman, a first-generation Korean American and director of NAKASEC’s newest chapter, Woori Juntos, has worked for years to provide language access to the 35,000 to 45,000 Korean Americans living in Harris County—one of the most diverse counties in the country. She also took on the mantle of Korean American Early Voting Day, a get-out-the-vote effort to provide Korean translations for the community’s seniors and first-time voters.
“[When I came to America], my limited English proficiency held me back from advancing—everything from sending the children to school to finding doctors, finding jobs, and preparing for retirement was challenging,” Norman said.
During the pandemic, Norman organized multiple COVID-19 relief efforts, especially attending to low-income, first-generation seniors, who were often the last to know and the hardest to reach for aid. Every chance she got, she’d remind people to fill out the census, even working with church pastors to include reminders about the census in Sunday services. Norman laughs at her relentlessness, but she recognized that to be seen, her community had to be counted.
“Maybe [our community’s struggle for language access] is why I am interested in voting and civic participation because only Americans can vote,” she said. “If we don’t have our numbers [in the Census], how can [the government] divide resources for us?”
Coalition building across movements
Rather than working in isolation, Asian Americans are actively participating in many ongoing movements led by Black and brown communities across the country. By communicating their importance and relevance to Asian American communities, organizers and community leaders are creating more opportunities to reach across the table and build multiracial coalitions.
“We know from decades of organizing that we’re most effective advocating for AAPIs (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) and serving our people when building a shared agenda that crosses racial lines,” said Timmy Lu, executive director for AAPIs for Civic Engagement Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF).
Letters for Black Lives began in 2016 as an open letter to Asian American communities to address police violence against the Black community and anti-Blackness within their own; it has since grown into a collection of multilingual and culturally sensitive resources to advance conversations of racial justice across communities of color. The Asian American Leaders Table on COVID-19 Racism, a network of Asian American organizations that convened out of the pandemic, has been leading work on narrative-shifting to reassert the long history of cross-racial solidarity between Asian Americans and other oppressed groups, including a project that archives contemporary solidarity practices. And in California, where one in six residents is Asian American, AAPI FORCE-EF works to build AAPI electoral power in collaboration and alliance with Black and brown communities.
Far from the mischaracterization that Asian Americans are an isolated, self-serving group, organizers hope that by being more visible in their social struggles and politics, Asian Americans can also be visible in their disaggregated identities—and counted. United with other BIPOC communities, Asian American organizers hope to contribute to creating a new vision for a civil society, one that recognizes and welcomes the diversity, and unique needs, of their respective diasporas.
“If we are to uproot the causes of our own oppression, we have to see each other and support each other,” Becky Belcore, NAKASEC’s executive director, told Prism. “Our liberation is directly tied to the liberation of Black and other marginalized communities.”