LOS ANGELES (AP) – As a Pakistani, Hamid Khan stood out among the Hispanics he marched alongside at a recent immigration law protest. When he told one demonstrator where he was from, the man responded: “‘Then what are you doing here?'”
Khan was surprised.
“I said ‘Look, there are non-Latino groups who are also suffering under these laws,'” said Khan, 49, a commercial pilot and director of an advocacy group called the South Asian Network.
Hispanics, the nation’s largest immigrant group, are leading the movement to demand a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and defeat legislation that would criminalize them.
Khan’s experience provides a glimpse into the ambiguous role non-Hispanic immigrants play in a public debate that has yet to fully include them.
While some Asian, European and Middle Eastern immigrants are supporting calls for sweeping immigration reform, many who are here illegally have shied from the public debate either because they feel Congress has overlooked needs specific to their communities or simply because they’re afraid to come forward.
Forty-eight percent of the nation’s 34 million foreign-born immigrants come from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and countries such as Canada, with the remainder coming from Latin America, according to the Census Bureau.
But of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, fully 78 percent come from Latin America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The next largest undocumented population comes from Asia, with 13 percent.
While all illegal immigrants could benefit from proposals in Congress that would give them a chance at citizenship, many non-Hispanic immigrants say lawmakers should take into account their reasons for coming to the country illegally.
“In the Latino community, people come here illegally for jobs,” said H. Chang, a 23-year-old Korean college student who asked her full name not be used because her parents are living in Los Angeles illegally. “For us, a whole family comes here for a student, and many stay illegally.”
Discussions on increasing visas have focused on guest worker programs for low-skilled laborers, not people like Chang’s parents.
For Vietnamese immigrants, a central complaint is the waiting period before relatives are allowed to join them, which can be 10 years, said Duc Nguyen, a 31-year-old Vietnamese health worker who lives in Orange.
He said he doesn’t see Congress considering that aspect. “Why are they (lawmakers) only doing a half reform?” asked Nguyen, who said he went to a few demonstrations but only to watch.
A bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, which some Hispanic advocacy groups called a good compromise because it included steps to citizenship for illegal immigrants, also would fortify the borders, expand immigration detention centers and speed up deportation proceedings.
That sent shivers through communities of Middle Eastern immigrants, who already feel scrutinized since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“That’s part of the reason why our community hasn’t rushed out to protest,” said Sabiha Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California. “They are afraid of what will happen to them with immigration reform.”
Still, the council and numerous activist groups representing non-Hispanic immigrants have encouraged participation in the marches, both in solidarity with others and to ensure that their own voices are heard.
“If we just look at the Latino community coming out, we are missing the bigger picture,” said Eun-Sook Lee, director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.
Hispanic groups have been contacting other immigrant groups to boost participation in the next national protest planned for May 1, said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican-American Political Association.