March 30, 2017 10:00 am JST

Trump's anti-immigrant message hits home for Asians

Visa crackdown is turning the American dream into a nightmare of uncertainty

HIROYUKI NISHIMURA, Nikkei deputy editor

Immigrants are a common sight on the streets of Flushing, New York, a thriving ethnic neighborhood where approximately 70% of the population is Asian. (Photo by Shino Yanagawa)

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES/DETROIT For Jan, the night of Nov. 8 last year was terrifying. The 20-year-old Mindanao-born Filipino had gathered with several of his undocumented peers in Flushing, New York, to watch the votes being counted for the U.S. presidential election. When it became certain that Donald Trump would win, the atmosphere of despair in the room was palpable.

"You could really see the disappointment and frustration in people's faces," Jan recalled. "But I tried to think, oh well, let's hope it gets better. Maybe it won't be that bad."

Today, that hope has largely faded as President Trump's rhetoric against immigrants, and the raids and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, grab the headlines.

"I became a lot more cautious ... lying low. I just go to school and go to work, that's pretty much it," Jan murmured in a dark tone. "The stuff that [Trump] says and the policies that he puts up ... it's terrifying for an undocumented person."

Jan is one of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status, of whom 1.3 million are from Asia. They live in fear of being deported.

Before and since the election, Trump has stressed that he will take sweeping measures to send back "illegal" immigrants, while tightening the border against people who legally enter with tourist visas, work permits and other documents. Hispanics and Muslims garner much attention as Trump's target due to his strong rhetoric about "building the wall" on the Mexican border and the travel ban against Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations.

But the 17 million Asian-Americans, including those born in the U.S. -- who represent 6% of the U.S. population and a third of immigrants -- are growing increasingly wary and disappointed. They worry that they may be the next target; they also feel that measures will critically taint the American dream -- the driving force behind the country's social and economic dynamism.

In Los Angeles, which has one of the highest immigrant populations in the U.S., Trump's policy shift has sent shock waves throughout various ethnic groups. In early March, wary immigrants filled the office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, as they sought legal assistance from the nonprofit organization.

"Before, we were helping with only two to three applications per week. Now we're handling 30-40 per day," said Communications Director Jorge-Mario Cabrera. Applicants have mainly been Hispanics, but now "we are seeing interest from Filipinos and Chinese people," he said.

In tandem with the first 100 days of the Trump administration, CHIRLA has offered free legal support to immigrants wanting to become U.S. citizens, and the result was beyond their expectations. The night before the consultation, available three days a week, a long line forms on the street and around the corner, forcing CHIRLA to turn away many of them due to lack of resources.

On March 6, several hundred immigrants flocked to a preview screening of CHIRLA's latest educational film, "America; I Too." The dramatic narrative, which was based on real events, shows law enforcement detaining undocumented immigrants on the street and at work -- a clothing factory. It explains the immigrants' constitutional rights that prevent deportation. The film features a Korean immigrant, along with a Hispanic person and an African, and offers captioning in Korean and Chinese -- reflecting the growing Asian presence in the undocumented immigrant population.

Indeed, though Hispanics constitute the majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, the number from Asia has grown much faster than from Mexico and Central America in recent years, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Indians, Chinese and South Koreans lead the list.

Deportation is nothing new. Over 250,000 Asian immigrants were deported under the Barack Obama administration.

According to Karin Wang, vice president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice -- Los Angeles, a civil rights organization, the difference now is that the Trump administration's interpretation of "deportable immigrants" is much broader than that of past administrations. Besides, its moves are random and it is trying to expand the resources needed for deportation.

EVERYONE'S A TARGET "Under Obama's eight years, they did not go door to door and just randomly," Wang said. "Now, they'll pick up anybody they can, and if you don't have paperwork to show that you are legitimately a citizen or a green card holder, you're likely to end up in detention. Even people who are citizens have been detained."

Indeed, there were multiple reports of U.S. citizens being detained at major airports following Trump's "travel ban."

That spells problems for a broad set of immigrants and non-citizen residents from Asia -- which can inconspicuously but persistently shackle business and economic activity.

"What bothers people is the uncertainty of the process and the feeling that anyone can be targeted next. You never know," said Gagan Deep Singh, a green card holder of Indian nationality.

Singh, who is married to an American citizen, lives in New York with his two children. As a relocation specialist, however, he travels abroad frequently. A Sikh, he often wears a turban, which is often mistaken for Muslim attire. "The sense of unwelcoming is really bad for business and for the economy as a whole," Singh said.

Also impacted by Trump's sweeping measures are Asian students studying in the U.S. -- exceeding 600,000 and making up the largest group among the total of 1 million.

Sukyung Chun, a Korean double bass player studying music at the University of Southern California, is one of them. "I was planning to perform at a big concert in Hokkaido, Japan, in late March, but had to give up because of Trump," she said. Her student visa needed renewal around that time and could have created procedural confusion. Amid the stringent border control policy, she chose to avoid the risk of not being able to re-enter the U.S.

"It was sad," Chun said, adding that she is nevertheless in a much better position than her undocumented friends. "They even stopped driving for fear of violating a traffic rule and being deported."

Following Trump's travel-restricting executive orders, universities across the U.S. issued warnings to their international students to avoid leaving the U.S. For them, Trump's policies are a serious cause for alarm, given that international students, who are growing in numbers and who often pay higher tuition than their American counterparts, are an increasingly important source of revenue.

An example is New York University, a leading U.S. host university where the approximately 15,000 international students make up over 20% of the student body -- among the highest in the U.S. Chinese, South Korean and Indian nationals top the list. "We are concerned about the message this order sends to the rest of the world," said Josh Taylor, a Global Programs representative for NYU, in a statement.

Though NYU applications for the 2017 school year are at an all-time high, some worry that as America closes its doors to talent from abroad, prospective students will choose to invest in higher education elsewhere.

There are already signs.

In a survey conducted in February by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, four out of 10 U.S. colleges reported fewer international applications.

While the greatest declines in applications are from the Middle East, China and India also registered a huge drop, with both showing some 25% fewer applications for undergraduate studies. These two countries made up nearly half of the approximately 1 million international students in U.S. colleges.

The broader economic impact cannot be ignored either, given that international students contributed $36 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Not only do they bring in funds from sources outside of the U.S., such as family assistance from their home governments or universities; they also bring international perspectives to classrooms and bridges for longer-term business relationships.

BRAIN DRAIN The unwelcoming atmosphere created by the administration will generate a headwind for bringing in and retaining talent from around the world, a challenge stressed years ago by then-President Obama.

"Are we a nation that educates the world's best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us?" Obama famously said in 2014 when announcing his immigration reform.

The situation now looks even more dire, as the Trump administration seeks to squeeze the spigot for H-1B visas, for specialty occupations such as engineers.

"Well, it's America's internal policy and I can't really do anything about it," said Arjun Venugopal, an international student from India pursuing his master's degree in manufacturing engineering at Wayne State University in Michigan.

But he is certain about one thing. He used his student visa privilege to work in his field of study, and got jobs at major global manufacturers, including the U.S. branch of German chassis maker ZF. "At the end of the day, someone else in the world is going to give me a job. The U.S. will miss out on me -- and my skill set," he said.

Immigrants and their talents are a precious resource. This is especially true in distressed regions like the Rust Belt, the old manufacturing centers in the Midwest to which Trump appealed during the election campaign.

Tel Ganesan, an entrepreneur in Detroit, is an example of how immigrants can play an important part in revitalizing a local economy.

The immigrant from India, whose passion for cars brought him to Detroit, was granted an H-1B visa upon joining Chrysler, after obtaining a master's degree. He worked there for 13 years, meanwhile becoming an American citizen.

In 2005, he struck out on his own and launched his own business. "I always had the entrepreneurial bug in me," Tel recalled. The new business -- a staffing company that supplies information technology experts and engineers -- started with two employees. Now the company, Kyyba, employs almost 700 people globally at its operations in the U.S., Canada and India, and rakes in annual revenue of over $60 million.

In Michigan alone, the company has created close to 500 jobs, Tel said. "That's a lot I contribute to the local economy, right? And most of them are people born in the U.S."

Recently, he started two new businesses -- a venture fund focusing on medical devices and healthcare information services, and a business accelerator that will bring and connect talent and technology to develop innovative services and products in the connected mobility sector, such as autonomous vehicles.

"America is the land of immigrants. It is the land of opportunities, and it's a land of entrepreneurs. And that's what makes America strong and great," he said. "That's what has been working for the last several centuries, and I think any major shifts to that model are not the right direction."

Tel, who noted that the U.S. is now even experiencing "reverse immigration" to fast-growing Asia, poses this question: "Are we going to risk the next Google or Facebook coming out of somewhere else? Or do we want to invent them in the U.S.?"

Nikkei staff writer Ariana King in New York contributed to this article.

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