Posted on October 20, 2008

Undocumented Asian Students Face Stigma

Beleza Chan, AsianWeek, Oct. 14, 2008

Picture an undocumented student, and the first image to pop up is unlikely to be an Asian one.

Yet a recent report by the University of California Office of the President revealed that 40 to 44 percent of undocumented students in the UC system are Asian. This is definitely not “a Mexican thing,” which is how one undocumented student characterized the Asian community’s dismissive views towards undocumented immigration.

“People will ask you: ‘Are you AB 540? Because obviously you are not Latina,’” explains Tam, a 24-year-old of Vietnamese descent who recently graduated from UCLA (the last names of the undocumented students in this article have been withheld to protect their identities).

The 2001 state law AB 540 lowers the cost of tuition at California public universities for students who attended a high school in the state for at least three years. According to the UC Office of the President, over 1,639 students have benefited from AB 540; out of those, 1,200 were legal residents or citizens.

Out-of-state students attending California colleges filed a suit in 2005 challenging the law, objecting to the state’s practice of allowing illegal immigrants to pay significantly lower tuition than they pay. The suit was dismissed by the Yolo County Superior Court in 2006.

But on September 15, the Court of Appeal in Sacramento issued a ruling that challenges AB 540 on the grounds that it contradicts federal law, which holds that states cannot grant educational benefits based on residency.

But life continues for those who have made it to college. Faced with financial burdens and legal concerns in addition to the normal college student worries about classes and career, today’s unexpected and overlooked Asian undocumented students are screaming for help.


Currently, the only path to legalization for these students is the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would allow undocumented students who have graduated from college in the United States to receive conditional residency and eventually legalization. The future of the bill is uncertain, but with the bill’s fiscal implications along with the current economic recession, support for it is low.


One’s immigration status is also a sensitive topic for Asians, and among Asian families, talking about it to even just ask for help is a taboo.


“Asian students are more reluctant to come forward,” Fong said. “I have to read between the lines. For Chicano/Latino students, by the first email, they will tell me about their status.”

This silence and shame may be related to culture.

“From what I can infer, students from Asian families enforce ‘secrecy’ for fear of being deported-this explains the fact that they have to be very guarded and careful,” said Jere Takahashi, director of the Asian Pacific American Student Development Program at UC Berkeley. “They have fear that [if they speak up] it will lead to investigation and eventually deportation.”

Nevertheless, the stereotype of undocumented students being solely Latinos can benefit and harm Asian undocumented students. On the one hand, Asian undocumented students don’t suffer from many of the negative stereotypes facing Latino undocumented students. But silence means isolation, according to Gin.