March 30, 2017 10:00 am JST

The Asian-American community reacts

Fear and anxiety spur call to action

Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and sweeping proposals have stirred reactions from the Asian-American community. Here is what experts are saying.

Aamina Ahmed

Raised in both the U.S. and Pakistan, Aamina Ahmed worries about the consequences of the escalating xenophobic and Islamphobic rhetoric being amplified by the current administration's policies such as the so-called Muslim ban. "I worry about my kids. It's not easy to maintain ties with the country where grandparents are from and get pushed against your own country. You almost become a person with no land, an outsider everywhere" Ahmed says. "What effects will that alienation have?"

The experience is not unique to Muslims, says Ahmed, who leads Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote - Michigan, a group advocating for equity for the Asian American community. "Asian Americans face a challenge, because they can be fourth generation and people still assume they are not from here. Marginalizing still happens," she says.

Ahmed thinks that if the current administration continues on its present course, there is no group safe from being subjected to xenophobic rhetoric. "So, if we stand up with each other and resist in solidarity then there is hope," she says. "If we stay in silos and only fight for what directly affects us, then we will all be losers."

Wei Lee

Living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant was never easy for Wei Lee, 28. But now, "it is becoming extremely difficult. ... Parents cannot drop off their kids without worrying about being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

The program coordinator for Aspire, the nation's first pan-Asian group for undocumented youths, was born in Brazil to Chinese parents. Their restaurant business flourished, and for that reason, they repeatedly became the target of crime.

"Things escalated, and we were kidnapped. We had to move." That is how the family went to the U.S. The family was in the process of getting permanent residency through sponsorship by their relatives in the U.S., but the process took time and they couldn't wait.

Lee is increasingly anxious about his future. "Right now it is a very uncertain phase for all of us," he said. But he continues to advocate for breaking the stereotypes about undocumented immigrants.

"Some people think that they come here and steal jobs, to get welfare. But that's not true," Lee said. "I do not think people take the decision [to immigrate] lightly."

Steve Tobocman

"We're on the right side of history and we're on the right side of the facts," says Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit, a regional initiative aiming to revitalize the city's economy by welcoming immigrants and attracting international talent.

"If you take a serious, academic, statistical view of the facts, immigrants grow the economy. They particularly help Rust Belt economies across the spectrum, from high-skilled, college-educated immigrants and particularly from Asia, to even those without formal education, working-class folks." He quotes studies showing that, over the last couple of decades, 32.8% of Michigan's high-tech companies have had an immigrant founder or co-founder, and that newcomers are three times as likely to start a business as local citizens. "So, immigrants actually create jobs, grow the economy, and help raise wages of those blue collar workers who have really been distressed by the current global economy," he says.

"Unfortunately, during times of economic turmoil and distress ... people get scapegoated and people look to blame others," Tobocman laments, adding, "I believe that we will be looking back at this time ... thinking that it was a blip."

Tsuya Hohri Yee

A New Yorker of mixed Japanese and Chinese heritage, Tsuya Hohri Yee is the assistant dean at The New School. Her forebears were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II, and her grandfather, William Hohri, was a lead plaintiff in a 1983 class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Today, Yee heads a group dedicated to preserving the story of Japanese-American internment. She sees parallels between President Donald Trump's "Muslim ban" and the events that led to Japanese-Americans being sent to camps. According to Yee, the military took control of the census, enabling the government to locate and eventually imprison Japanese-Americans. "Targeting and identifying one group of people or nationality and casting suspicion is very problematic and unconstitutional," Yee said.

The rhetoric being used by the Trump administration has a familiar ring to it, she said. "One of the quotes from World War II says, 'No Japanese have committed any crimes, but that just proves they will,'" Yee said. "These alternative facts ... they are not new."

"Now is a moment for us, as Japanese-Americans, to make sure we are educated on the [internment camp] issue and stay on the front lines," Yee said.

-- Hiroyuki Nishimura and Mamiko Fujita

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