Cutting the Fat

by denise wong

The United States’ present political and
sociocultural climate of anti-immigrant jingoism is indubitably escalating to
alarming heights, given that the new and improved sequels to Arizona’s Senate
Bill 1070 are becoming increasingly blatant in their racism. Even more
disconcerting is the fact that these newly proposed anti-immigrant hate laws,
which make no effort to conceal their legislative racism, are becoming gradually
more accepted around the nation.
The case of Indiana is an aptly emblematic
instance. Following Arizona’s precedent, Indiana is one of the newest states to
introduce a law intended to fix the problem of what is said to be illegal
immigration. Latest data from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated Indiana’s
undocumented population consists of only 85,000 to 150,000 people. Looking at
the bill’s provisions, however, that statistic is not as stirring as the fact
that Latinos comprise the largest non-white racial group and fastest-growing
ethnic group in the state, according to a 2007 article from the Indiana
Tribune Star.

Introduced in January, Indiana’s Senate Bill 590
would mandate law enforcement officials to ask for the documentation of any
individuals in violation of a law or ordinance if there is “reasonable
suspicion” that the offender is neither a citizen nor a legal visitor. If this
virtual legalization of racial profiling wasn’t enough, the bill goes even
further to require the exclusive use of English in most government meetings,
transactions, and documents, as well as the termination of the state’s Spanish
language portal, and ballots and other printed materials in other languages.
Moreover, the bill would deny financial aid to undocumented students at the
University of Indiana and require them to pay out-of-state tuition, prohibit the
establishment of Sanctuary Cities, and allow the closing of any business that
employs undocumented workers.

That a single bill combines the denial of
educational opportunities for immigrants, the legalization of racial profiling,
and English-only legislation in one package demonstrates that lawmakers are
getting more comfortable passing laws that promote racism and xenophobia. All
three legislative tactics, particularly the English-only provision, have been
continuously used to disenfranchise communities of color. After all, even if it
were true that all immigrants magically learn English upon attaining legal
status (as apparently assumed by proponents of this policy), they would not
necessarily get to the level where they can be civically engaged without
translation assistance. Believe what you will about unauthorized immigrants, but
it is undeniable that the law targets legal immigrants as well.

The racist motives behind SB 590 are thinly veiled
in the flimsy excuses given by policymakers who support this law. In an article
published by Hispanically Speaking News, Indiana Senator Mike Delph
(R-Carmel), who filed the bill, said: “We’re taking the handcuffs off of law
enforcement. We’re holding employers who are thumbing their noses at the law
accountable. And we’re lifting up the English language.” A Jan. 18th press
release by the state of Indiana published additional commentary by Delph: “It’s
time that we put an end to press one for English and two for Spanish in our

According to a Feb. 18th editorial in the
Indianapolis Star, the office of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels
acknowledged that Daniels may authorize the legislation if it appears on his
desk, but claimed the law would have negligible practical effect.

Assuming no practical effect, then, why pass a
piece of legislation that would do little other than let everybody know Indiana
hates people of color? The arguments in play here appear to be, “Illegal is
illegal,” and “You’re in America, now speak English.”

The latter point is self-explanatorily racist and
xenophobic, even if one ignores how English-only mandates have historically
targeted communities of color.

The former point, which completely disregards past
and present injustices within the U.S. immigration system, is essentially akin
to “because I said so.” That is, illegality is a crutch for policymakers so they
don’t have to explain themselves, especially since the exhausted anti-immigrant
adages are so easily refuted (according to the Immigration Policy Center,
undocumented immigrants in Indiana paid $255.9 million in taxes in 2009, and
contributed $7.1 billion to the economy of Indiana in 2009). Considering how
mass media has racialized illegal immigrants and how the federal government has
historically excluded immigrants based on race (Chinese Exclusion Act, anyone?),
the bill becomes suspect, if not obviously racist.

As of this writing, the Indiana senate has passed
the bill and it is now headed to the governor’s desk; this is an unsurprising
extension of Indiana’s history as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, where racial
backlash has frequently followed threats to white political hegemony.
Nonetheless, Indiana is by no means the only state considering SB 1070 copycat
legislation. According to Voto Latino, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi,
Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have already introduced SB
1070-esque bills into their state legislature, while Arkansas, Colorado,
Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, Nebraska, North Carolina,
Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah are considering adopting the measure.

We now get to the elephantine question in the
room: given that 1070-esque legislation is now on the table for many states with
significant Asian American communities, how will Asian/Pacific Americans be
implicated in this new period of structural discrimination against

While APAs share common histories of
racialization, discrimination, and exclusion with the targeted Latino community
that should already prompt the outrage of the APA community, it seems only a
matter of time before anti-Asian sentiment becomes a more explicit part of
anti-immigrant sentiment.

As stated above, English-only laws have been used
in the past to target and disempower communities of color, particularly APA
communities. For example, English-only laws passed in Monterey Park, California
in the 1980s were the culmination of an intense climate of racism against new
Chinese immigrants in the area.

Significant APA communities, however, exist in
many of the copycat states. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Florida and Texas are among those with the highest Asian populations
in the country. Moreover, many of these states are home to “gateway cities” for
Asian immigrants, or cities where newly-arrived Asian immigrants tend to
cluster. Asian American Studies Professor Michael Omi states that Miami is an
established gateway city for Asian Americans, while Charlotte (North Carolina),
Fort Worth (Texas), and Atlanta (Georgia) are emerging gateways for Asian

“There are significant APA communities in several
of the copycat states. For example, in Minnesota, one of the largest Hmong
communities in the U.S. resides in that state,” said Connie Choi, staff attorney
at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC).

“In Pennsylvania, there are significant Asian
American Pacific Islander numbers including Koreans, Cambodians, Chinese,
etc. In Texas, there are large Vietnamese and Chinese communities. In Georgia,
there is a growing Korean community, and a prominent Filipino community in

Naturally, Asian immigrants in gateway cities have
created burgeoning immigrant enclaves, which have prevailed as cultural and
commercial centers for APA immigrant residents. Given the fervent climate of
anti-Asian xenophobia all over the country (everything from video games that
arouse anti-Korean hatred to petitions against Mandarin language classes) and
the fact that immigration is a hot-button issue across the nation, the passage
of copycat laws makes these communities even more vulnerable to racial

A factsheet on SB 1070 put out by APALC and the
Asian American Justice Center before the bill was passed stated, “As a result
[of SB 1070’s passing], AAPIs [in Arizona] will be afraid to emerge from their
homes out of fear that they will be stopped. They will be deterred from speaking
or engaging in other expressive conduct in languages other than English in order
to avoid unwanted scrutiny by law enforcement, violating the fundamental right
of free speech and expression. They will be unable to celebrate their cultural
traditions and commune freely with members of their own community, because doing
so may invite unwarranted attention. For example, the law makes it illegal for
certain people to transport or live with undocumented immigrants. SB 1070 would
also apply to AAPIs that are traveling through or visiting the state.”

According to Choi, “In Arizona, even before SB
1070 was signed into law, AAPIs were discriminated against, harassed, and
ultimately made to feel like they were outsiders in their own home state (even
if they had lived there all their lives).”

It thus follows that the pattern set by Arizona
will probably carry over to its copycats, with even more devastating effects on
APAs there, unless the communities fight back. APAs were the original “illegal
immigrants” and targets of the first and only explicitly racist exclusion law.
Now, the APA immigrant community is again at a place where it is in danger of
legislative targeting and marginalization, in the name of “national security,”
“taxpayer dollars,” or whatever bullshit excuse they’ve concocted this time.

To reiterate a statement I made in a previous
hardboiled article (Issue 13.2, “The Nebulous Masses”), immigration
within the APA community cannot be considered epiphenomenal to any other
struggle. It is an issue that continues to affect APAs, and must be prioritized
by our communities before the attack on Americans of color intensifies. By
voicing our resistance before we are implicated as targets, APAs can bring hope
to our communities and work toward ending Arizona SB 1070’s legacy.