Why Asian-Pacific Islanders Care About Incarceration

U.S. Department of Justice statistics don’t register enough Asian Pacific Islander (API) people in prison to be included in reports. They are lumped in a category simply called “other.”

Why is it then that Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, an organization focused on serving Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States, won’t stop talking about incarceration? Two of our programs, Immigrant Rights and Criminal Justice Reform, are dedicated to advocating for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders

API communities feel the pain of incarceration, but the aggregate statistics hide their experiences. We know that Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders have some of the highest incarceration rates of any community. We know that they are reeling from the trauma of war, genocide, being resettled in violent neighborhoods, astronomical poverty rates, and failing schools. We know from immigration statistics that Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are deported for criminal convictions at 5 times the rate of other immigrants.

Members of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (ASPC) with Kid CAT, a group of people sentenced to life sentences as children at San Quentin State Prison. Learn more about APSC at http://www.asianprisonersupport.com/.

Yet, groups that call themselves Asian Pacific Islander have often failed to meaningfully address the experiences of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Incarceration is virtually ignored by most umbrella API orgs, and this neglect is compounded by the absence of institutional funders to support this essential work. As a result, Asian immigration advocacy is often limited to family immigration, highly skilled tech workers, and perhaps undocumented people without “serious convictions.”

In this vacuum, advocacy for the many APIs behind bars and being deported for criminal convictions is sorely needed. Although our incarceration work is mostly unfunded, we visit with and talk to APIs in prisons and jails and their families on a daily basis. They are feeling the immense pain of incarceration and separation.

Yet, that is not the full reason why we made the decision to focus on incarceration. We aren’t just impacted by incarceration and deportation. We’ve been turned into the justification for incarceration and deportation through the model minority myth.

Model Minority Myth

The “model minority myth” is the idea that Asians are naturally intelligent, hardworking, and successful despite whatever racial barriers are placed in our way. Notably, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are left out of this myth. Consistently, we respond to the myth by pointing out the high poverty, high school dropout, and incarceration rates of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders to push back against the myth.

But the model minority myth was never targeted at Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. The myth was designed to turn Asians into a weapon against Black and later Latinx people. In the midst of victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 limited racial bars for Asian immigrants and allowed limited numbers of highly skilled immigrants to enter. As a result, a small generation of highly educated, highly skilled Asians immigrated to the United States after 1965. With prestigious degrees and job offers, they succeeded, as have their children.

Soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, articles appeared using Asian communities to attack Black communities. “The Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1966. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~hist32/Hist33/US%20News%20&%20World%20Report.pdf

Immediately after the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were told “if they can succeed despite centuries of racism through their hard work, why can’t you?” Latinx people are told “if they could come here legally, why can’t you?” The success of some Asians is used to justify the incarceration and deportation of Black and Latinx communities, as well as our own communities.

The Racial Middle

So what do we do if we decide that we do not want to be the model minority? That we do not want to be white supremacy’s weapon against Black and Latinx communities?

In a speech given to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990, Mari Matsuda reminded us that Asians are the racial middle. We occupy the middle of America’s racial hierarchy between white at the top and Black at the bottom. The middle is a critical place. She told us, “It can reinforce white supremacy if it deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white people if it tries hard enough. Conversely, the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to abandon communities of black and brown people, choosing instead to forge alliances with them.”

We actively choose to not be the model minority. We choose to leave no one behind and align ourselves with the most marginalized — those inside of prisons, jails, and detention centers. They are refugees, queer and trans people, survivors of domestic and sexual violence, people struggling with mental health issues, the poor, and people from API communities that never get a proclamation from the White House.

Black people are fighting back against a system of incarceration that has more Black people incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1800. Latinx people are fighting back against a deportation system that has grown twenty fold in the past three decades. We are forging alliances with both Black and Brown communities.

What the Asian Law Caucus is doing

So, how are we going to turn the model minority myth on itself and work to dismantle incarceration and deportation?

Asian Law Caucus staff outside of the Yuba County jail following legal visits. Yuba County, in rural Northern California, has the highest incarceration rate in the state and also rents space to ICE to detain immigrants.

1. We’re bringing light into cages.

For African-American and immigrant communities, places like Parchman, Chowchilla, Eloy, and Etowah are all too familiar. For the rest of America, the prisons — and the people inside of them — are invisible.

Prisons and immigration detention centers are placed in forgotten swamps, forests, and deserts across America precisely to ensure we don’t see them. We’re told that the people we lock up are bad, dangerous, and violent. The White House tells us that the people it deports are “the worst of the worst.” Since we’re kept from ever talking to them, we come to believe the worst about them.

We are working to make the people inside of prisons visible. We are proud to have the most active immigration detention program serving APIs in the country. Our lawyers spend as much time inside of jails, prisons, and detention centers as we can.

We connect with incarcerated people, mostly APIs but also Black and Latinx people. We listen to them and learn how we can support them. We offer legal consultations and representation. We bring litigation to challenge immigration detention. We run campaigns for people labeled as “violent criminal aliens” to allow them to show who they really are and to obtain their freedom.

2. We’re connecting the dots between mass incarceration and mass deportation.

America has the world’s largest prison population. Over 2 million people, mostly Black and Brown people, are locked up. As a result of incredible advocacy led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Black people, there has been widespread recognition that something is terribly wrong and we must address our national addiction to prisons.

At the same time, America has the world’s largest deportation and immigration detention systems. Over 400,000 people are deported each year. As a result of incredible advocacy led by undocumented immigrants, there has been recognition that we need to address our addiction to immigration detention.

Yet, these two movements are often out of sync. Immigration detention and deportation are often left out of conversations about incarceration. For example, advocacy led to President Obama commuting the sentences of six thousand drug offenders last year. However because deportation was not part of the advocacy, a third of those people were deported after their sentences were commuted.

Similarly, the Immigrant Rights movement often adopts narratives about immigrants not being criminals that leaves out immigrant communities struggling with living in communities occupied by police as well as failing to connect with Black communities. As a result, advocacy led to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program granting protection from deportation and work permits to millions of undocumented youth. However, the other side of the coin was that since ICE agents were not going after DACA recipients that they would then go after “criminal aliens.” It wasn’t long before we saw a rise in ICE agents conducting pre-dawn home raids in Southeast Asian communities.

APIs can play a critical role in building bridges between these two movements. The Asian Pacific Islanders we talk to on the inside are mostly people being deported for criminal convictions who have lived in the United States for decades. They don’t see incarceration and deportation as two separate systems. They see it as one system separating them from their families. That is why our Criminal Justice Reform and Immigrant Rights programs also treat them as one system.

Our Criminal Justice Reform and Immigrant Rights Programs prevent people from entering the system by advocating for alternatives to incarceration for children and measures like Proposition 47, which reduced several felonies in California to misdemeanors. We disrupt the incarceration-to-deportation pipeline by preventing local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE at the local and state level, which led to hundreds of jurisdictions nationally adopting ICE hold reform. Finally, we get people sent from jails and prisons to immigration detention out through direct legal services, impact litigation, and advocacy campaigns.

3. We’re building leadership in formerly incarcerated APIs.

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are their own best advocates. We are committed to building leadership in our communities in formerly incarcerated people.

Danny Thongsy — 2017 Yuri Kochiyama Fellow

In 2016, we announced the start of the Yuri Kochiyama Fellowship for formerly incarcerated API immigrants. Our 2017–2018 Yuri Kochiyama Fellow is Danny Thongsy. Danny came to the United States as a refugee from Laos when was a child. At 17, he was sentenced to life in prison. During his 23 years inside prison, Danny advocated for changes to parole for youth lifers resulting in his release along with hundreds of other people. After his release, Danny was detained by ICE and spent months in detention. In early 2017, Danny won his freedom.

Over 6,500 people in California prisons were children who were charged as adults like Danny. Danny is fighting to make sure that the next generation of children do not have to go through what he did. Danny is currently taking part in advocacy in Sacramento and sharing his story to humanize incarcerated immigrants.

Respectability won’t save us. Lifting from the bottom will.

We’re intentionally choosing to build leadership among people who have spent significant amounts of time inside and are otherwise from marginalized communities. We understand that an incremental strategy might seem more logical. We could focus on undocumented immigrants without convictions being deported and slowly move towards immigrants with prison sentences being deported. Similarly, advocacy on policing and incarceration has long focused on respectable Black professionals pulled over for “Driving While Black” or people facing absurdly long sentences for minor drug crimes.

However, justice does not trickle down. Respectable advocacy couldn’t protect Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland. It hasn’t stopped our communities from being torn apart and deported. When we lift from the bottom though, everyone gets free.


None of us are free until we’re all free. Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately incarcerated and deported because of laws passed during the incarceration booms of the 1980s and 1990s targeting Black communities. If we want to be free, we must address where this all began.

We’re excited to have you join us in doing precisely that.