If you only listened to the rhetoric blasting from the White House, you might think that Mexican and undocumented are synonymous. In truth, the face of undocumented Americans is changing. Last year Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers removed 240,000 people from 185 different nationalities, and more than 1,700 of them came from Asian or Pacific Island countries. Migration from Mexico slows down, while migration through transcontinental borders speeds up.
In Seattle, the fastest-growing immigrant groups are Asians and Pacific Islanders. A 2015 report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice estimated that 39,000 undocumented Asians live in the Seattle metropolitan area (King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties). King County’s Asian population grew 17.8 percent in the last five years—5.6 percent in the last year alone. So it’s not a stretch when Asian advocacy groups in Seattle say they believe Asians are also the fastest-growing undocumented group.
“If you are undocumented and you’re right now breathing this air,” says Bookda Gheisar, immigrant and refugee policy analyst in King County, “I would think you’d be terrified.” Existing under those conditions means never being anywhere you might see someone with the authority to deport you.
Life becomes a rush from safe place to safe place. Pick up your kids from school, come home. Buy groceries, come home. Food banks, referral services, counseling—all those extraneous pit stops represent just one more chance of getting exposed. Why risk it?
And you don’t have to be undocumented to feel that fear. “It’s a really scary time for us as brown people,” says Cambodian American and Seattle activist Sameth Mell.
Consider the byzantine immigration polices that make it difficult for Cambodians to navigate their rights; they may be permanent residents and still be at risk of deportation. (A 1996 an agreement between Cambodia and the U.S. allowed Cambodians with green cards to face deportation for something as small as a misdemeanor.)
Diane Narasaki, executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, says that since last fall’s election she’s been busy addressing people’s fears after agencies reported a lack of attendance to health services.
Meanwhile, of course, the need for those services hasn’t changed. And that’s the danger. You can’t fix something you don’t see.