By Jennifer Ong
June 27, 2019

As I re-examined the immigrant experience of the Filipino and Southeast Asian communities incorporating information from a press conference earlier today highlighting immigrants and the census ruling by the Supreme Court, I came to a realization that this truly is a critical time for Asian Pacific Islanders in the U.S. We must come together now that we are statistically the fastest growing ethnic population in the U.S., have the highest likelihood of distrust in participating in the 2020 census and, locally, compose the majority of the populations in Santa Clara and Alameda Counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

The immigrant experience for different ethnic communities (and generations) can influence the degree to which a particular ethnic community will participate in the upcoming 2020 census. Services and communication methods employed to encourage participation in the census will need to be specific to the targeted generations of Asian Americans who may not have had experience with a previous census, have language and technological barriers and continue to fear and distrust government.

My Filipino Immigrant Story

It’s been 38 years since we lived in the Philippines experiencing martial law and increased lawlessness and crime during my childhood creating an urgency for our family’s migration to the U.S. It has truly been an American dream for our parents to put all four children through college with my father working as a produce clerk at Lucky’s grocery and my mother’s employment at the Oakland Coliseum concession stands. These were union jobs that allowed us four children access to health care and affordable college through student loans and part-time work.

The immigrant application process was arduous. It took over ten years of my parents’ sacrifice, including my mother’s employment in government and my father’s entrepreneurial role in his family’s grocery store business, to exchange for the promise of safety, a more transparent and fair government and better opportunities for their children.

My story is one variation of the Filipino American immigrant experience and, as we look at the Southeast Asian new immigrant, refugee and asylum seekers’ stories, the cultural challenges we face together to belong as Americans are similar in varying degrees. To understand what inspires us to overcome those barriers, to continue to thrive and to proceed to help others, we must understand each other’s past experiences.

Contrasting Histories of Southeast Asian Immigration by Jennifer Ong

Filipinos in America

Asian Americans, the group most likely to say the Census will use “(their answers) against them” have the fastest growing rate of documented and undocumented immigrants with a sizable number who are Filipinos.

Filipinos are “the fourth largest immigrant community in the U.S. perhaps as high as 3.5 million because of the unaccounted number of undocumented Filipinos or TNTs — for tago ng tago, literally in perpetual hiding.” Sadly, the current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has already declared that he will “not lift a finger” for any of undocumented Filipinos overseas who are caught and deported.

The Philippines was considered a colony of the United States with fluctuations in politics and the workforce demand leading to its commonwealth status then to the declaration of Philippine independence in 1945 followed by the reclassification of Filipinos as aliens. At the end of World War II, Filipino servicemen were promised American citizenship for fighting the Japanese but having that promise fail to come to fruition, Filipina war brides and health care workers instead contributed to the next wave of Filipino immigrants.

The majority of Filipinos who immigrated after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 were skilled professionals and technicians. Remittances to the Philippines account for over 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP with nearly half from the United States in 2015. The 2010 Census counted Filipino Americans as the country’s second largest self-reported Asian ancestry group after Chinese Americans and are also the largest population of Filipinos overseas.

The Immigration Experience of The Cambodian Community

Cambodian refugees began arriving in the United States in greater numbers after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The 1980 Census identified nearly half of the 16,044 Cambodian immigrants as refugees followed in the 1980s by liberal refugee admission policies increasing immigration nine times to 149,047 in the 1990 Census. Language barriers, mistrust of strangers and government, ongoing challenges with refugee resettlement and unusual residence and household composition have created suspicion of repeated undercounting of Cambodian Americans by the Census Bureau.

The Cambodian community as a whole still deals with a “high poverty rate, poor English fluency (56 % were identified as “linguistically isolated”) with low levels of educational achievement (only 6 % of Cambodians over 25 y.o have a bachelor’s degree).” The Khmer Rouge genocide decimated the educated and professional classes thereby extinguishing the remaining population’s access to education resulting in Cambodians having the lowest educational level averaging 3.1 years of education before arriving in the U.S. Cambodians’ historically oppressive government developed fear and distrust of government and a detachment to civic responsibilities.

The language barrier has made it difficult for many parents from the first generation to pass the English language portion of the citizenship test. Many of the 1.5 generation of Cambodian Americans (young people raised in America since infancy or early childhood) remain non-citizens- a vulnerable status for the ever-changing U.S. policies. Even when Cambodian Americans come from highly educated backgrounds, their education is not transferable to the American workplace and they are handicapped by their language skills.

Regardless of their parents’ limited educational background, many young Cambodian Americans do well in school and dedicate themselves to acquiring more education with only 6% of Cambodian Americans 16-19 y.o. reported as high-school dropouts (vs. 10% of white Americans and 14% of African Americans in the same age group).