The Nebulous Masses: Cal’s Invisible APIs

by denise wong

The ongoing debates regarding the UC budget crisis have proven a difficult space to initiate a discussion about how budget cuts will affect underserved sectors of the API community. Given the relative nascence of open discussion surrounding this topic, it is understandable that the information is somewhat obscure. Nonetheless, recent developments threaten to further aggravate  the financial situation for a nearly invisible population — undocumented API AB540 students, who constitute 40 to 44 percent of all undocumented AB540 students, and are the second-largest undocumented group in the UC system.

So little discussion has materialized regarding API AB540 students, a label often erroneously used interchangeably with undocumented API AB540 students. AB540 is a state law that grants all students, regardless of documentation status, the ability to pay in-state tuition if they graduated from a California high school and were enrolled for at least three years.  According to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC), undocumented beneficiaries  must apply for legal citizenship once they attain eligibility. In spite of these benefits, undocumented students are ineligible for work-study, state grants, or other forms of federal or taxpayer-funded financial aid.

The statute was disputed last year in the California Supreme Court case Martinez v. Regents of the University of California, which claimed that the law conflicted with a federal law that prohibits these benefits, unless they also extend to non-resident U.S. citizens. While AB540 has since remained in effect, the Court is currently considering the outcome of this case, which could significantly hamper the attainment of higher education for undocumented students.

According to Marwin Yeung, Political Awareness Coordinator for REACH!, Berkeley’s API recruitment and retention center, UC Berkeley holds the second largest undocumented youth population in all UC campuses. Though resident students now face tuition exceeding $10,000, it is currently unknown how much non-resident tuition will increase.  The proposed fee hikes do not apply to out-of-state or international students. However, undocumented AB540 students already typically struggle with tuition and experience subsequent problems with academic retention. A potential repeal of the AB540 law would disastrously exacerbate the situation that these students presently face.

“Mark Yudof and the UC Regents can cover up all they want, consoling the public that the University of California system will still strive to waver tuition fees for those with low-income backgrounds ($70,000 or less),” said Mia Jamili, Advocacy Coordinator for Pilipino Academic Student Services (PASS) and one of the Lead Interns for the Multicultural Immigrant Student Program (MISP). “But the truth of the matter is that the students who never were able to receive any federal aid and any grants/scholarships that initially require a Social Security Number on their applications will remain in the struggle and be left behind.”

Given this information, it is troubling that only limited discussion on this issue has transpired, and so little of it has concentrated on the experiences of API AB540 students. Aside from the relatively small amount of campus dialogue regarding this population, very few print articles cover the experiences of these students. Dialogue regarding this issue is imperative, as it not only creates a space to implement relevant services for a vastly underserved student population, but also addresses many little-discussed immigration-related issues that plague the API community.

Student organizers on campus attribute the invisibility of API AB540 students to forces both internal and external to the community. Culturally, API communities tend to view immigration extremely sensitively, and do not discuss their immigration statuses even when asking for help.

According to Yeung, however, the media has also significantly framed much of the immigration debate around racializing the Latino community and maintaining the popular notion of APIs as a “model minority” group.

“It’s not like an immigrant issue anymore [to the public], but I think [the media’s] trying to make it specifically a Latino issue,” Yeung said. “It reinforces the idea that Asians do not have immigration issues. Or if they do, they can just grab themselves by the bootstraps, get themselves up.”

The facts illustrate that this could not be more untrue. The dearth of services that serve the API community’s immigration needs stems at least partially from the lack of API presence in the immigration debates. According to an October 2008 article by AsianWeek, undocumented Asian students do not even have much information on the college process; such services are often only available in English or Spanish, and are thus inaccessible to non-English or Spanish proficient APIs.

The silenced dialogue on API undocumented students also curtails discussion about immigration issues unique or specifically pertinent to APIs. This obscures the community’s particular immigration needs, such as improved legal services to resolve problems with immigration or documentation status. According to an amicus brief recently put out by APALC, API students often immigrate legally at a young age, but lose their legal status over time. Among the included testimonials are the stories of a girl who arrived in the U.S. legally as an infant, but was unsuccessful at attaining permanent residency because of her family attorney’s mismanagement of their residency petition, and another family’s inability to attain permanent residency because their employer cheated them out of two thousand dollars to process a visa application. Another testimonial details the story of an Indonesian boy who attempted to apply for political asylum but was denied because he did not file his application within one year of arriving in the United States; he is able to legally work and live in the country, but cannot apply for permanent residence.

Such narratives not only counter dominant perceptions of illegal immigrants, but also emphasize the need for expanded and improved legal counsel for API immigration needs.

“I think not many people know that AB540 students come from the API community, which makes it even more difficult to find resources,” Yeung said. “Let’s say you’re an AB540 student and you’re API. It might be kind of difficult to approach a Latino organization that focuses on AB540 students, because there might be different experiences that their AB540 students may have.”

Similarly, the breakdown of the populations impacted most by AB540 defies an inimical, pervasive notion within the API community that East Asian communities, typically understood to comprise the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean American communities, are somehow better off or less affected by API issues. The largest group of affected AB540 APIs is Korean American, comprising 60 percent of API undocumented undergraduates within the UC system. Moreover, 14 percent are Chinese American, 10 percent are Filipino American, 7 percent are South Asian, 7 percent are Southeast Asian, and 1 percent are Pacific Islander.

“I think often East Asians are perceived as this ‘more privileged’ group. I think this is a prime example of how Asian Americans are still struggling, more specifically, East Asians,” Yeung added. “I think it’s important to be conscious of how each community is being affected.”

It is thus problematic to dismiss East Asian populations as more “privileged” when one of the most pressing and concealed API issues is one that largely affects their community.

While AB540 students currently face an institutional barrier that seriously threatens their progression through higher education, it is at least optimistic that student organizers have opened up the discussion through focusing on the budget cuts. According to Jamili, affected students and their allies have been taking action through campus support networks, legislation, and education and the dissemination of proper information. However, the experiences of API AB540 students cannot be neglected as epiphenomenal to any greater issue. Immigration is most definitely a problem that impacts APIs, and must be central to the discussion of holistically advancing the API community and ameliorating their struggles.

“We must keep in mind that fears hinder substantial voices as other voices instill fear,” Jamili said. “What we have encountered and accomplished so far is only the beginning.”