Faces of Asia, Faces of America
The face of immigration is changing rapidly. Asians outpaced Hispanic immigrants in 2009, becoming the largest and fastest-growing wave of newcomers to the United States. The group is a mosaic and not a monolith. People are arriving from dozens of countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands, bringing unique languages, cultures, and histories. Some come as legal immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, while others may overstay a visa or enter without proper documentation.
Many Asian immigrants share a collective desire to become American citizens. Since the 2012 presidential election, 60 percent of all eligible Asians and Pacific Islanders have become U.S. citizens. This represents a demographic shift that shows no signs of slowing down.
In August the New Americans Campaign brought more than 225 immigration workers to San Francisco for the annual United for Citizenship Practitioners Conference. There were panels and strategy sessions and a lot of time for networking. The practitioners, many of whom are immigrants themselves, returned to partner organizations around the country with new insights and tools for helping legal permanent residents become U.S. citizens.
The conference concluded with a day-long citizenship workshop held at a local union headquarters. More than 235 aspiring Americans lined up to get free legal counsel on filing their citizenship applications. New Americans Campaign volunteers were on hand to offer help in eight languages.
While India, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Korea are currently the top five Asian countries of origin, this Asian wave of immigrants includes people who had moved to the U.S. from as far afield as Mongolia and Fiji. We spoke with people from other continents and countries as well. They all arrived toting their documents in file folders and backpacks — and carrying their hopes and dreams in their hearts.
There are eight million people living, working, and paying taxes in this country who are eligible for citizenship, yet, according to the New Americans Campaign, only about eight percent of them naturalize each year. Since the campaign began five years ago, affiliates across the country helped complete 211,000 citizenship applications. Eager to become American citizens, each applicant we spoke with was tremendously grateful for the help they received. Many expressed a desire to give back — to the best of their ability — to the United States. “In Mongolia,” Kaspar Rogiar told us, “our traditional saying is, ‘Even a drop of water is helpful for the ocean.’”
Born Mongolia, arrived 2003
“I came to America because of my big curiosity and my interest in so many different fields about religion, about culture, about technology. It’s lots of different people from all over the world, they live together peacefully and respect each other’s beliefs and religion. I wanted to open my mind. I needed so much to learn from other people from different countries. I have learned so much and still I am curious about so many other religions and countries and cultures. To me it was my personal life experience, journey. I like the U.S. and being here and wanted to become a U.S. citizen. It’s really the best country to be in. I will be proud to be a U.S. Citizen. I will support the institution and system, and I respect it and I like it. Just do everything for the best. I have always had a passion for helping others. I like psychology and some spirituality, and I’d like to do something good for people. I don’t know what my future will be, but since I was a kid, I have always had a big mind and goals to achieve for doing good for the people and doing good for the Earth. In Mongolia, our traditional saying is, even a drop of water is helpful for the ocean.”
Jie Ying “Virginia” Liang
Born China, arrived 2009
“I live in the United States for seven years. I was sixteen when I came. My family come to the United States, my mother’s sister, and whole family — and my brother, younger brother, my mom saved for coming to the United States, there was a love for here. My mom say come to the workshop today, so I come. I want to be an American for my family, for my family. Yes.”
Justino David, Jr.
Born Philippines, arrived 2011
“Earlyn, my wife, said, ‘If we are qualified to be an American citizen that’s good. Yes. America is great. You know? Great.’ I left because the Philippines was very — you know, more corruption, more drugs there. That’s why I petitioned to come here. My sister was here and sponsored me to the state. My family was already here in North Carolina, my daughter, and she met my wife and me. If I am a citizen my impression is there are very good benefits here. Benefits to . . . old people like me. I’m 68 years old.”
Born India, arrived 2012
“I am an immigration caseworker with the International Rescue Committee. The IRC works with a lot of refugees and asylees from around the world. And, as an immigration caseworker, we help them with their citizenship, their naturalization, their green cards, and helping them to bring their families over. So being part of the New Americans Campaign has been great because you work with other organizations. They have their own experiences, and their own skills, and their own strengths. My husband was working here in the tech industry and when we got married I moved to the United States. I would like to eventually become a citizen. I’m a bit far away from it, but I would like to become a citizen. And I love the work that I am doing, helping people bring their families, making them safe, making them secure, but, especially when they come from really bad and terrible situations from around the world. I hope to continue doing that sort of work and making people realize that, if you come to the United States, and you work hard, and you try, you can have a good and fulfilling life.”
Born China, arrived 2008
“I have been in the United States almost eight years, just working and going to school and learning English, and meeting new people. I want to join the citizens. I like the United States. I want to grow up and to get married to my girlfriend and have my children and have grandchildren who are born in the United States and they can become citizens.”
Born South Korea, arrived 1974
“Back home in Korea I just got a high school education, and when I came here there wasn’t a whole lot of things I could do, so I worked in a factory assembly line and I did restaurant work for years and years and years. It was hard work but money was good. Later on I learned how to do nails, so I did that for about four or five years, and after that I did outside sales for a couple years so that I could travel. I am very happy with all the experiences I had, you know? It gave me freedom and opportunity. I’ve been here for plenty long enough, and I think I should participate fully, instead of just being a Green Card holder. Honestly, I want to V-O-T-E . . . because it’s the most important thing you can do with citizenship. I never thought, oh, I should get a citizenship someday, but this year it’s different, you know what I mean? I’ve been living here for 42 years and I’ve never seen a time like this.”
Anh Dung T. Tran & Thu ha thi Nguyen
Born Vietnam, arrived 2007
“My husband and I . . . it was our dream to come to the United States with our family. We have a daughter, 19 years old, and I would like to have her to go to school and to learn all of the culture of the United States. I think that is a big part of it for me. I would like people to know that where I came from, we didn’t have much freedom, or a lot of things like a good health system, and the benefits I get for my family. The environment and the economy in the United States are really helping my family. I want to help get the message out that this one is the best country on earth. I want to be a good citizen. And to be a good citizen, voting is very important. And voting for the right person to help the country, is essential.”
Born Philippines, arrived 1996
“My nephew, Carlito, brought me here today. I stay here in the United States almost 20 years. I need America because America give me a good future and everything for me. I would like to help the poor people. If I can help, I will help.”
The Making of Americans
225 New Americans Campaign partners convened in San Francisco, CA, for the annual United Citizenship Practitioners Conference, August 3–5, 2016.
Clockwise from Upper Left
- (l) Javeria Jamil, staff attorney, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta and (r) Hayet Ahmed, International Rescue Committee, Atlanta, Georgia, participate in a panel discussion at the conference.
- Melissa Rodgers, director of programs, Immigrant Legal Resources Center, and director of the New Americans Campaign.
- (l) Andrew Geraghty, Carnegie Corporation of New York; (c) Eric Cohen, executive director, Immigrant Legal Resource Center; and (r) Cat Bao Le, Southeast Asian Coalition, Charlotte, North Carolina.
- A volunteer helps aspiring Americans complete their citizenship applications.
- Mohana Walambe, South Asian American Voices for Impact, Detroit, Michigan, volunteers at the citizenship workshop.
Mazzera is a photographer based in San Francisco.
Ablow is a visiting media fellow with Carnegie Corporation of New York.