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Originally published October 14, 2010 at 6:54 PM | Page modified October 14, 2010 at 7:24 PM

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Local Asian Americans join immigration fray

Some local Asian Pacific Islander groups want to draw attention to immigration policies that affect them negatively and Thursday launched a campaign for change — the first of its kind in the country — called "It's our issue, too."

Seattle Times staff reporter

People of Asian descent comprise 5 percent of the nation's foreign-born population and 11 percent of all illegal immigrants. And the massive visa backlogs that keep families separated for years — sometimes decades — affect them more than any other single group.

Yet in the ongoing cry for immigration-policy changes — including amnesty for the more than 11 million people in the U.S. illegally — the Asian voice has been mostly lost.

The face of this nation's immigration debate is decidedly Latino — not Asian.

Now, some local Asian Pacific Islander groups want to draw attention to immigration policies that impact them and Thursday launched a campaign for change — the first of its kind in the country — called "It's our issue, too."

Together with local and state politicians, they are asking members of Congress and President Obama to pass an immigration bill this year.

It's a call that comes late — long after members of Congress already have left to campaign for November elections and in a year when efforts to get any kind of debate on immigration sputtered and failed.

Diane Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County, pointed to a long history of Asians and Asian Americans being negatively affected by U.S. immigration laws. "We continue to feel the pain and feel a moral urgency to pass legislation this year," said Narasaki, who is also executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Services.

"You wouldn't necessarily know it from listening to the immigration debate, but this issue touches our community deeply."

Strong voice

Narasaki said Asian Americans and immigrants have long had a strong voice in the call for new immigration policies but may not have gotten the same attention as Latinos.

Of the estimated 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants in this country, about 1.2 million are of Asian descent. One in five Koreans in this country is here illegally.

According to U.S. State Department numbers, more than 1.5 million relatives of Asian and Asian Americans are waiting for family-based green cards to reunite them with relatives in the United States. Among them are Filipino American World War II veterans. For them, the wait has been so long that many have died waiting to have their families join them in this country.

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Narasaki presented to a staffer from Sen. Maria Cantwell's office petitions bearing 1,300 signatures of Asian Pacific Islanders in Washington state. The state is home to more than 441,231 people of Asian descent; 71 percent of them are foreign born.

At Thursday's news conference, undocumented Asian immigrants appeared on a video in silhouette, their identities veiled, to speak about living in the shadows.

Muhammad Zahid Chaudhry, a Pakistani from Yakima, appeared in person to speak about the five years he spent in the Washington Army National Guard, only to leave broken, after back injuries from training exercises left him in a wheelchair.

Chaudhry, who was honorably discharged, says he disclosed on his citizenship application in 2004 that he had pleaded guilty 15 years before in Australia of using a false passport and credit card.

But the government said Chaudhry did not disclose that, and cited a lack of good moral character in denying him citizenship.

Now, he's fighting deportation.

With his U.S.-born wife, Ann Chaudhry, at his side and dressed in freshly pressed military attire, he talked of his dread about being torn from his family.

"As you can see I have truly given my body and my heart to America," he said. "It's hard for me to understand how a country I love and respect so much does not show me the same respect."

Immigration change should be everybody's concern, said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who was born in Korea to a military family.

The expulsion of 600 Chinese residents from the city of Tacoma 125 years ago, in part, resulted in Tacoma being one of the only West Coast cities of its size without a Chinatown, she told the group.

On Oct. 30, the 125th anniversary of that expulsion, Strickland will lead a delegation of city leaders on a march from Union Station to the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park "to remind everybody that we are no longer that society."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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