Mitch Cho left Korea in part to gain a measure of freedom from the yoke of tradition.
A graphics designer living in East Los Angeles, he loved the liberty of the “American lifestyle,” the not being pressed, among other things, about getting married already. And like many of his Mexican immigrant neighbors, Cho, 31, settled in the United States illegally.
Although some of them, particularly the younger ones, occasionally joined street protests calling for immigrant rights, Cho kept his status secret.
“The price you pay for speaking in the open can taint your family name or their reputation. Who wants that?” he said.
Cho is part of an often-overlooked demographic: one of an estimated 1.5 million Asian immigrants in the U.S. illegally, the second largest group after immigrants from Mexico and Central America. There are about 416,000 Asians without legal status in California. Yet in part because illegal immigration has been cast largely as a Latino issue, Asians tend to be overlooked in the national discourse.
Many are glad for the relative inattention, even if their future — especially after the presidential election of Donald Trump, who has vowed to be tough on illegal immigration — is just as hazy as that of other undocumented immigrants.
“Because Latinos get the brunt of the anti-immigrant backlash, Asians may feel they can stay on the sidelines,” said Apolonio Morales, political director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “But if the target suddenly shifts toward Asians, they would be compelled to act.”
Lan Quoc Nguyen, an attorney in Westminster who has handled immigration cases, says that for many Asian immigrants, being open about their legal status is an uncomfortable proposition.
“Culture teaches us not to bring attention to ourselves,” he said. Being illegally in “our community can be a level of shame higher than divorce. The option is to keep out of the way, work as babysitters or in cash jobs,” and if lucky, one might “find a way to legalize.”
By contrast, illegal immigration has been such a part of the Mexican and Central American experience over the generations that for many families, the phenomenon has become a source of dark humor and shirts with jokey slogans — a kind of coping mechanism that has inspired Mexican corrido songs and movies.
Almost 30 years ago, a film set in Cho’s adopted home, “Born in East L.A.” played the topic for laughs, with its Mexican American protagonist, portrayed by Cheech Marin, mistakenly deported to Mexico even though he did not speak Spanish.
There is no cultural analog in the Asian community. For Cho, the best course of action is to keep his head down.
“If I stay underground, I don’t get questions like, ‘Why did your family let you leave? How can you do this or that without having legal status?’ ” he said.
That doesn’t mean everyone decides to adopt that tack, though. Some Asians march and hold signs at immigrant rights rallies, despite being a decided minority among the ranks.
At a recent meeting of the California Dream Network at UC Irvine, young men and women with roots mostly in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico dished on the threat of deportations under a Trump White House.
Martha Ancajas, a 20-year-old born in the Philippines and in the U.S. illegally, was the lone Asian.
“It’s always this way. In public, this struggle mainly attracts the voices of Latinos. Among Asians, there’s more shame and more quiet when you are in America without the right papers. What I think is you must speak up or be left out,” said the sophomore majoring in ethnic studies at Cal State Sacramento.
Her father, an addict in and out of drug rehab, died in a motorcycle accident. In 2012, at the age of 14, she left the Philippines, accompanied by her grandmother. She overstayed her U.S. tourist visa, finished high school, enrolled in college and cleaned houses as she worked toward her degree.
Ancajas said the stereotype of Asians as a “model minority” obscured the fact that many are vulnerable to deportation, even if they work hard and study.
She arrived in the U.S. too late to apply for DACA, President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered temporary work permits and protection from deportation for immigrants who came to America before 2007 as children under the age of 17.
“For the longest time, I was really shy and didn’t want to say anything about it,” she said. But then Ancajas had a change of heart. “I’m here to represent my culture. We can and do contribute to society.”
Still, Tom Wong, an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego, said it makes sense for many Asians in the country illegally to stay away from the white-hot spotlight of the immigration issue.
Many have immigration petitions in the pipeline — including requests for work visas — and they don’t want to take risks, he added.
“We know from studies that a disproportionate number of Asians are affected by visa backlogs. It wouldn’t be good for them to jeopardize their paperwork by marching on the streets or protesting,” Wong said.
Generally, Asians and Pacific Islanders have more avenues to enter the country, Wong said, whether through family or work connections. Many overstay visas and were not poor in their homeland.
“There are very few ways for low-skilled workers to come into the U.S. [legally],” he said. “But you see and hear of plenty of stories about the Asian engineer who earned a doctorate or the tech worker who has advanced knowledge who are valuable to companies.”
Seth Hernandez, 24, was brought by his parents to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2004. He was 12 then, and as he grew up, he realized that “being undocumented means not being able to plan your life. We don’t have that luxury.”
He said he wants a career in film, but “I don't even know where I’ll be in two years, three years — especially now that we’re changing presidents.”
Hernandez, of Culver City, said he wishes more “millennial Asians” supported people like him.
“But overall, Asians don’t see people like them at these rallies, so they don’t show up,” he said. “When they don’t show up, the situation doesn’t improve because their concerns are hidden.”
Hong Nguyen said she wouldn’t dream of standing on a street corner with a political sign. When she first arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam in 2005, she rented a $400 room in Arcadia and took buses to and from her job as a waitress at a pho restaurant. She earned $1,400 a month, working six days a week, using tips for pocket expenses.
In her homeland, Nguyen worked as a high school literature teacher, making less than $50 monthly. When she and her husband split up, Nguyen said she knew she could not provide for their daughter if she stayed in Vietnam. So she left the girl, then 4, in the care of her grandparents and traveled to Los Angeles — intending to overstay her tourist visa.
“I’ve been happy with what I could earn in America and not be a burden to friends or family in California,” said Nguyen, 41. “I see other people without papers — and if they’re women — they’re pushed to find a man to marry so you could stay in the U.S. That was never my goal. I don’t want to use someone that way.”
She also recognized that there was a greater tendency to assume that many Latino immigrants were in the country illegally.
If a police officer or some other authority figure came into the restaurant, “the Vietnamese owner would order all the Mexican workers to take a break, come back later. For me, she would just say, ‘This is my sister who’s visiting.’ ”
Anthony Ng, a policy advocate for immigrant rights at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said his parents brought him to the U.S. from Manila, Philippines, in 2001. He was 11 and too young to know he didn’t have legal papers.
After high school, he enrolled at UC Irvine, where he connected with mentors who were student activists. One day, he went to a meeting and for the first time, heard about Filipino American veterans who had been denied benefits, even though they fought for the U.S. in World War II.
“Bingo! I wanted to get more politically involved,” Ng, 27, recalled.
He said the Asian community’s diversity offered challenges, including the fact that many people “came from countries where speaking out and fighting for your beliefs were things that got you punished.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that advocates lower immigration levels, said that diversity of cultures and languages make it harder for Asians to organize in the same way as Latinos, who at least share a common language.
“Mexicans are different from Colombians, who are different from Argentinians — but they have an overarching commonality in language,” he said. “By contrast, what on earth does a Korean have in common with a Bangladeshi? East Asians and South Asians are totally unrelated. So the opportunity to organize or mobilize is kind of limited.”
Asian immigration today “is very comparable to European immigration a century ago, with its lack of a common language and culture,” Krikorian added.
Ng says there’s more social acceptance in the Latino community for people who are in the country illegally.
“In Latino communities, you definitely see more support for the undocumented, and people don’t treat them in such a hostile way,” Ng said, adding that he and others at Advancing Justice are reaching out to the Asian community, advising them to seek reputable immigration attorneys for help or inviting them to come in to review paperwork.
Ancajas, the Sacramento student, said she is determined to be more vocal.
“This political season, we’re out in the open,” she said. “We must protect ourselves.”