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Immigration a Family Affair for Many Asians

With comparatively few in the U.S. illegally, the concern is the lengthy wait for relatives' visas.

April 24, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Harish Dhruv did it legally.

A native of India, Dhruv came to the United States on a student visa in 1970, earned an undergraduate degree in textile chemicals, found an employer willing to sponsor him for a green card and obtained citizenship in 1977. Then he petitioned to bring his younger sister here, finally winning approval in 2001 -- after 17 long years.

So ask Dhruv about the immigration debate raging across the nation, and he will tell you his top priority is not legalizing undocumented migrants, nor is it expanding a guest worker program. It is reducing the long wait for visas for family members.

"It's too long," said Dhruv, 60, a South Pasadena financial planner. "I feel it's very unfair to the people who are waiting and to those who want to bring their families together. I want Congress to stop playing politics and resolve this issue in the best interests of legal American citizens, rather than concentrating on the illegals."

Much of the attention so far has been focused on Latinos. But the nation's roughly 10 million Asian immigrants also have an enormous stake in the debate, which will resume as Congress returns from recess this week.

Their priorities, however, are often different from Latinos'.

Statistics help explain why: Only about 8% to 10% of the Asian population is here illegally, compared with more than 20% of Latinos.

Latinos accounted for 78% of the nation's 11 million illegal migrants in 2005, compared with 13% from Asia, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

As a result, Asian activists say, their communities are most concerned about reducing family visa backlogs -- a goal opposed by some immigration-control groups. Asians also oppose other proposed measures that they say would harshly curtail the civil rights of legal immigrants.

Because their homelands are an ocean away, they are not as concerned with a proposed guest worker program or with enhanced border enforcement.

In addition, more Asians than Latinos are naturalized U.S. citizens, college-educated and professionally employed -- attributes that may make some feel less connected to the struggles of predominantly low-skilled illegal immigrants.

Relatively few Asian immigrants have joined the marches, rallies and other pro-immigrant events that have taken place in cities nationwide, perhaps viewing the movement as a Latino cause.

There are other factors as well. Asian communities' media outlets sometimes lack the breadth and clout of those catering to Latinos, and many Asian immigrants come from countries with less-developed political protest traditions.

"There's a general apathy among Chinese immigrants because they come from societies where they were not allowed to vote or voice their opinions," said Daniel Huang, 38, an Alhambra immigration attorney whose clients are mainly from China and Taiwan.

"If you criticize the government or march in the streets in China, you're harshly punished. The last time they did that, they were run over by tanks," he said, referring to the Chinese government's violent suppression in 1989 of pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

Not all Asian immigrants, of course, are uninvolved. South Korea and the Philippines both have traditions of ousting dictatorial regimes, and their emigres in the United States are stepping up actions for immigration reform.

Today, Korean American business, faith and community leaders are scheduled to announce plans to join Latinos and other immigrants in the next major immigrant rights' demonstration, set for May 1.

Despite their different priorities, Asian Americans do share some concerns with Latinos about legalization of undocumented immigrants.

At a recent town hall meeting sponsored by the South Asian Network in Artesia, Khadim Hussain spoke of his fears as an illegal immigrant who came to the United States in 1991 to support dozens of destitute family members living in the disputed territory of Kashmir on the India-Pakistan border.

A convenience -store clerk, he has been struggling to pay mounting medical bills for his parents, who were injured in the region's earthquake last year.

"My biggest hope is a green card so I can see my parents again," he said.

Nonetheless, some evidence suggests that people of Asian heritage are less sympathetic than Latinos are to illegal immigrants.

Although the majority of legal Asian immigrants support legalizing the undocumented, one recent multilingual poll sponsored by New America Media, an ethnic media consortium, showed that 39% favored the deportation of all illegal migrants, compared with 8% of legal Latino immigrants who held that view.

A 1994 Times exit poll showed that 47% of Asian Americans voted for Proposition 187, the state initiative that would have denied public benefits to illegal immigrants had it not been struck down by the courts. Less than a quarter of Latino voters supported it.

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