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Civil rights lawyer Karin Wang on Trump crackdown

Asian-Americans have an 'important role' to play in resisting targeting of immigrants

How is the Asian-American community reacting to President Donald Trump's immigration and border-control policy, and what are their challenges? The Nikkei Asian Review spoke to Karin Wang, vice president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice -- Los Angeles, the nation's largest legal and civil rights organization for Asian-Americans.

Q: Muslim and Hispanic people garner much attention when it comes to debate on immigrants. What have you been hearing from the Asian-American community?

A: The biggest impact has been on Indian immigrants, who are bearing the brunt of the anti-Muslim attacks. South Asians often get mistaken for Middle Eastern or Muslim people. Sikhs who wear turbans especially have problems, and a man in Washington actually got shot recently. Combined with the crackdown on H-1B visas, a lot of Indian immigrants are wondering whether they should stay or go. So there are a lot of signs that Asian immigration could slow.

Q: And the other Asian ethnic groups?

A: We are concerned that a lot of people in the Asian community feel that they are not in the crosshairs. But my South Asian friends have been sending messages to their communities saying, "[Don't] think you're not under attack; these [perpetrators of hate] can't tell the difference."

One of the big debates now is whether South Asians should be called "Asian-American." Some South Asians don't identify as Asian-American. And we sometimes get pushback from Chinese or Korean-Americans who don't understand why we're so sympathetic to Muslim people. In fact, the biggest group of Muslims in the world is in Asia. I also say I wouldn't be nonchalant about this, as you're kind of next on the list. China clearly is up there, given Trump's anti-China rhetoric.

Q: Do you see any parallels between the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, in which the Chinese-American was assaulted in Detroit by two unemployed white workers amid huge antagonism toward Japan as the rising automaker?

A: We were founded right around the time of the killing. And our co-founder, Stewart Kwoh, was the only lawyer from outside of Michigan who actually tried to get a federal prosecution for a hate crime. Chin's death was the first [case] to be prosecuted as a hate crime in which an Asian was the victim.

In the '80s, nobody thought Japan was going to invade us. Rather, it was very much an economic threat, that Japan would decimate a major American industry, particularly in Detroit. And someone died for that. Now we are worried that we are looking at something similar when Trump talks about China being an economic enemy or threat.

I think the China thing is going to ramp up. Trump won partially on the promise to foil terrorism, but probably more so on the pledge to bring back jobs from China, Asia and elsewhere. In reality, that will be hard because a lot of [those jobs have] been automated.

Q: What do you think the Trump administration is ultimately trying to achieve?

A: If you look at what President Trump and his advisers have said, it is clear that ... they're not just against undocumented or "illegal" immigration. Legal immigrants are also included in the targets. The administration wants to go back to a time before 1965, when the U.S. eliminated quotas against Latin Americans, Asians and Africans, triggering the explosion of immigration from those regions. Also, they don't favor the family immigration system, which has been a big part of how Asian communities have grown.

Q: How will Asian-Americans deal with this?

A: We have an important role to play in resisting such targeting of immigrants -- because we are all ultimately immigrants. We are perpetual foreigners. Anybody who's got roots in Asia is going to be viewed as foreign for the most part even if you are here for generations and cannot speak a word of another language.

So we need to build strong alliances with the people who are more clearly targeted right now. I think Japanese-Americans, in particular, have been at the forefront [of] the Muslim ban because of their history of internment during World War II. I've heard a lot of Muslim community members say it's been really meaningful to see Japanese-Americans come out and say "We know what this is like. We will not let this happen to someone again."

-- Hiroyuki Nishimura

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