Misguided Opportunities: The Undocumented Immigrant Experience

Immigration policy is a contested and challenging issue that continues to shape the United States as a nation with profound effects on the individuals that hope to gain opportunities in America. According to America in Progress there are1.3 million undocumented Asian immigrants in America. Asian Americans have played a significant role in advocating for immigration reform and 58% of Asian Americans have supported a pathway for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  Immigration reform and immigration policies are issues that affect many Asians waiting for visas to join their families in America. 1

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This weeks’ readings focused on the issues that undocumented immigrants face in America. Ha Jin’s story “A Good Fall” demonstrates how Chinese immigrants struggled to fit in and create a new life for themselves in America. The main character, Ganchin, struggles with issues of exploitation, poverty, and anxiety about becoming an undocumented immigrant in America and connects to the experiences of many undocumented immigrants who are afraid to speak out about their situation for fear of being deported.

In the story, Ganchin is one of the Chinese immigrants that was teaching the monks Kung Fu. However, Ganchin’s employer, Master Zong fires Ganchin from teaching at the temple because he falls ill. Master Zong refused to give him the salary that was promised to him. He states that the salary was only a formality and that the temple doesn’t owe him any money even though Ganchin has worked for them for two years.  Master Zong also kept his passport to make sure Ganchin could not apply for a green card. Master Zong kicks him out and states, “I don’t care where you go. Your visa has expired and you’re already an illegal alien, a lawbreaker.”2  The harsh cruelty Master Zong shows towards Ganchin demonstrates the exploitation that many immigrants face when they come to America. Undocumented immigrants are at the mercy of their employers and are unable to get help for fear of being deported back to their country.

Ganchin is afraid to return to his country because he owes a lot of money and will be attacked by his creditors if he returns. Ganchin states, “originally he’d thought that by the time his three-year stint here was over he could return loaded with gifts and dollars. But now penniless, he couldn’t imagine going back.”3 Ganchin’s life begins to unravel as he struggles to find a place to stay and find a way to stay in America.

Ganchin is being threatened by Master Zong and at one point Master Zong tries to force him out of the country. Master Zong kidnaps him from Fanku’s place where he is staying temporarily. Master Zong and his security guards tried to force him onto a plane back to China because they did not want Ganchin to expose them.

Immigrants that come to the United States often do not know English and this makes it very difficult for them to obtain employment and even get legal support if they are being exploited. They are easily exploited because they do not know English and are struggling to make money to live in the country and either pay creditors or support their families. This leads to many instances of undocumented immigrants working for very low wages and not speaking up for themselves if they are being exploited. Ganchin cannot renew his visa without his passport and he does not know English so he believes he cannot make a life for himself in America outside of the temple. Ganchin believes that he is not going to be able to change his situation and tries to commit suicide. Ganchin’s story exposes the obstacles undocumented immigrants face in their struggle to become legal citizens in the United States.

Immigration issues are closely linked to employment and exploitation of undocumented immigrants is an issue in many countries.  Immigration policies need to be revised to help undocumented immigrants find pathways to citizenship. Immigrants from China struggle to keep their families together and immigration policies make it very difficult for family members to immigrate to America. Family sponsorship is the most common way that Asian immigrants come to the United States but many family members are lost in the system and are stuck waiting to get a family visa. “There are currently 1.8 million Asian family-based visa applicants waiting to be reunited with their families living in the United States—36 percent of all people in the visa backlog.”4

Often undocumented immigrants feel like they have no where to turn to in their moments of desperation because of their status and the challenges they will face in trying to change their citizenship status. America can be a very difficult place for undocumented immigrants to experience the economic opportunities and social freedom that were promised to them.

1. Tram Kieu. 28 May 2013. Center for American Progress. “Why Immigration is an Asian Issue.” https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2013/05/28/64474/why-immigration-is-an-asian-american-issue/

2. Ha Jin. “A Good Fall” from A Good Fall (Pantheon, 2009), 164.

3. Ha Jin. “A Good Fall.” 166.

4. Tram Kieu. 28 May 2013. Center for American Progress. “Why Immigration is an Asian Issue.” https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2013/05/28/64474/why-immigration-is-an-asian-american-issue/

18 thoughts on “Misguided Opportunities: The Undocumented Immigrant Experience

  1. I had no idea that there were so many undocumented immigrants from Asia in the U.S. I believe that the Asian-American/Asian immigrant story has been largely untold. As we learned in the Angel Island exhibit, immigration often was and is extremely difficult for those coming from Asia. You blog post provides statistics and factual information to support that.

    1. Thank you Sammy. I was intrigued about the issues that Asian immigrants are facing today. It is sad how groups that have been marginalized in the past immigration waves are still experiencing these issues of exploitation and struggles with immigration policies and the process to this day.

    2. I agree with Sammy. I was really excited to read the statistics and facts that your blog provided about the Asian immigrant experience. I would really like to read and hear more about different groups of contemporary newcomers and how their stories differ from the stories we often hear about immigrants to the United States.

  2. Falicia, thanks for writing about this topic. When the topic of undocumented immigrants in the United States arises, I usually think of the issues and policies surrounding Latino immigrants because that is most talked about in the media. Could this be because Americans see Asian immigrants as model minorities and don’t think about how they are exploited and marginalized? This post enlightened me to the the struggle Asian immigrants in the U.S. fight in order to gain rights.

    1. The article that I cited in American Progress actually talks about the issue of viewing Asian immigrants as model citizens today. It does not help them in many cases as they are ignored and they continue to experience difficulty with the immigration process and not having access to education or economic opportunities that we believe they have. In addition, the Chinese and Asian immigrants have a long and complicated exploitation relationship with the United States. They have been used to work on the railroad and the US tried to get many Chinese immigrants to come to the US at that time. Then the US establishes the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration. They also have been given many different stereotypes and the Asian immigrants as model citizens is just another type of labeling and stereotype of them. The idea of the Chinese or Asian immigrants as model citizens does not actually help them live a better life in America.

    2. Carly, I think you nailed a key point there. Some minorities in America are viewed as the idealized immigrant due to stereotyping and racism. It seems to me that people of Indian and South Asian heritage fit this model as well. I think the media should also be held responsible for creating this inaccurate image of illegal immigration as a Latino issue.

      1. I also agree with both Noah and Carly. Perhaps this stereotype contributes to the visa backlog. If Asian immigrants are viewed as the model minority (or one of them) perhaps it is not as much of a priority to get their visas organized. Your post, Falicia, also reminded me that there is not just one undocumented immigrant story–there are so many different stories in the larger narrative and each is valid and deserves attention.

      2. Noah great point. The other issue is the use of different terms in society. I am not sure if you meant to say Latinos are considered the undocumented immigrants in America. But the word illegal immigrants is also used in talking about Latino immigrants and this is an offensive term for Latino immigrants as people are not illegal. Society has a more negative perception of Latino immigrants today but in the past Asian immigrants were also unwelcome in America and there were many racial and negative stereotypes of Asian immigrants.

  3. I agree with you both, I typically don’t think of Asian immigrants when the words “undocumented immigrant” come up. What I found most interesting about this story that connects to our other readings for this week is the issue of language barriers. Learning English as a path and/or barrier seems to crop up again and again. In a way, the language, more than many other things, takes on almost a symbolic quality that represents the American Dream.

    1. I agree with you all and especially you Tori. Asian literally never come to mind when I think of “undocumented immigrants.” I am sure the media plays a role in my perception of who is and who is not an “undocumented immigrant.” Yet the struggle is really for many Asian immigrants in the U.S. I believe we saw this first hand during our field trip to NYC.

  4. Tori, great point! Language is a way that immigrants can keep their culture but if immigrants don’t learn English they will struggle to get anywhere in America. It is very difficult for anyone who doesn’t speak English to get a good paying job or have equal educational opportunities. I appreciate how the Tenement Museum addresses this issue. Do we know of other museums that also address the issue of language barriers in America?

  5. Definitely an amazing post since it talks about something that people do not think about. I agree with the people who brought up the idealized minority. It might be why that we don’t hear too much about it.

    I remember hearing about the issues of ESL in the schools. While it has changed, learning English provides opportunities in America (even if there are laws against it). How can non-profits help reduce the barriers?

  6. I keep thinking about my experiences in Japan. I was there legally, I had a steady job, I could speak a little Japanese, and I had a support system (my co-workers). Yet so many everyday things were very difficult. A few months after I moved to Japan, I got an ear infection, and I didn’t know what to do. My Japanese wasn’t good enough to go to a doctor by myself, and I won’t even know how to find a doctor. Luckily my Japanese co-worker took me to a doctor and got everything sorted out, but if I hadn’t had that support, I don’t know what I would have done. If I was an undocumented immigrant who couldn’t speak the language at all and had no support system, I would have been completely lost. There are so many people who are facing those barriers, and so much misinformation and misconceptions about undocumented workers. I think museums can have a place in helping people communicate about these issues, but I’m not sure exactly how they can do it.

    On a related note, I know a lot of people who say they don’t mind immigration as long as they come in the “proper” way. But the statistics you cite about visa backlogs and people stuck waiting to be reunited with families proves that coming to the U.S. legally is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Even if you follow all the rules, there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck in the system. It’s no wonder so many people decide to come here as undocumented; I’d get fed up with the bureaucracy too.

    1. Emily I love your personal insight about my blog! I agree that without a support system it is very difficult to make your way around a foreign country and relates to a lot of the issues and difficulties immigrants face in coming to America. I also find it frustrating that there is so much red tape for immigrants to go through in applying for visas and citizenship to America. That is another difficult aspect of not knowing English; I think it must be difficult to apply to be a US citizen or get a work visa and access to economic opportunities if you don’t know how to speak and write in English.

  7. I’ve had a bit of a different experience than you guys – I didn’t find the statistics regarding undocumented Asian immigrants shocking or surprising. This may have been a result of where I’m from – although growing up in Southern California has mostly exposed me to issues of Mexican immigration (as we’ve discussed in previous classes) I’ve also been exposed to issues of Asian immigration. The story you talk about does a good job at exposing the difficulties that many undocumented immigrants can face, regardless of where they are originally from.

    1. I agree with you, Meghan. I was not surprised by the statistics. I did however, start to think about how I personally view these two groups based on everyones responses. I do think I have thought of Asian and Latino immigrants differently. I think I have romanticized Asian immigration a little and felt that it was easier for them than Latinos. This could be, as you say, because of where I am from. Latino immigration is more present and I see the struggle more clearly. However, this post, and reading, made me re-think how I view immigration across different races.

  8. I think that the thing that stands out to me about this story is the fear of being somewhere and not knowing how to communicate. It definitely goes back to what Emily was saying, about the almost helplessness one can feel when they don’t know where, or whom, to turn to for help. Like most of you have posted, I had no idea there were that many undocumented Asian Immigrants in the US. Reading this story, and that of Hispanic immigrants several weeks ago, truly brings light to how America needs to find a way to make it easier and safer for these individuals and their families transition into American life.

    1. Caitlin, I thought the same thing. Even living in another country for a few months at a time where I do speak the language somewhat has made me feel helpless sometimes. It’s exhausting to try to navigate a new place even when you do have a support system. For me, the lynchpin is always language. I’ve worked really hard to learn languages, and that makes all the difference. And when I am in a place where I don’t speak the language, I feel completely unmoored. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in a place where you don’t speak the language AND you have no support system.

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