Asians, Islanders forgotten

Comprehensive immigration reform has long been a major issue for Hispanic rights advocates.

But leaders of another minority group, the Asian-American and Pacific-Islander community, say the issue is just as urgent for them. And they're tired of being ignored.

"We have to continually lobby to be recognized," said Rozita Lee, vice chairwoman of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, who lives in Las Vegas.

Lee regularly flies to Washington, D.C., at her own expense to "walk the halls of Congress," talking to politicians about immigration reform, among other issues.

She and fellow leaders in the Asian-American/Pacific-Islander community worry that progress has stalled on the matter since the national focus has shifted to other controversial issues such as health care reform.

That's bad news for those who have been hoping reform would help more quickly bring family members to the United States.

"It's just not fair," Lee said. "Some families have been separated 20 years. They need to be together."

The Asian-American/Pacific-Islander community is pushing for immigration reform that focuses on family reunification.

But many in the community also favor a more merit-based approach to immigration, in which highly educated, skilled individuals would more quickly move to the front of the immigration line.

Asians "emphasize educational attainment," said S.B. Woo, executive director of the 80-20 Initiative, a national political action committee dedicated to getting Asian Americans to vote as a bloc to increase their political pull.

A more merit-based approach to immigration "would give Asian-Americans a larger quota," he said. "It's a win-win situation."

Census data from 2008 show that Asians make up 7.3 percent of Clark County's population, while Pacific Islanders make up less than 1 percent. About 136,200 Asians live in the county.

Las Vegas in 2006 was named one of five "emerging communities" for the rapid growth of its Asian population by the Asian American Justice Center.

Hispanics comprise more than a quarter of the county's population.

Some in the Asian-American/Pacific-Islander community are angry that they haven't been able to bring family members legally to the United States, while people coming over the border illegally get in right away.

That's another reason to support a merit-based immigration approach, said Wayne Tanaka, a retired Clark County educator who until recently was the honorary consul for Japan.

"People are waiting an excruciatingly long time," Tanaka said. "I believe immigration should be meritorious."

But Tanaka and others in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community also favor a sympathetic approach to immigration reform, providing a path to legal status for otherwise law abiding immigrants who are living in the United States illegally.

An estimated 1.2 million Asians live illegally in the United States.

"There are Japanese natives who have been in the country illegally for years, working as nannies, cooks and maids," Tanaka said.

"If someone is contributing to America's growth and development, there should be a way" for them to gain legal status.

Still, as in the larger community, opinions on immigration reform run the gamut in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community, Tanaka said.

"There is no quick answer."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis or 702-383-0285.