Tom K. Wong on Life as an Undocumented Youth (KPBS)

BY MONICA MEDINA   JANUARY 9, 2013

KPBS News

Tom K. Wong is haunted by a childhood memory. It is of being awakened in the middle of the night by his mother, and being taken into the hallway, along with his older brother. There, she held them both tightly and sobbed while helicopters hovered overhead.

“It was bizarre,” says Wong, who still remembers the incident that occurred when he was 10, in their low-income neighborhood in Riverside, California, which was comprised mostly of Mexicans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans. “That night, my mother was really scared. There were helicopters flying around, and lights shining down by our house, but they weren’t there for us. The police were surrounding our neighbors’ house. Yet, it was clear my mother thought the immigration officials were coming to raid our house. I connected the dots later on in life.”


    Wong at age 11. (Tom K. Wong)

For Wong, who today is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, connecting the dots included coming to America from Hong Kong with his parents and brother, at the age of two, and staying long after their visas expired. The revelation that he was an undocumented immigrant came when he reached the age of 16. Like most youth at that age, he was eager to get his driver’s license. Instead, he learned that he couldn’t because of his undocumented status, and the news left him reeling or, as he says, “It was like having a bomb dropped on me.”



“A lot of young undocumented immigrants aren’t aware that they’re undocumented,” notes Wong, whose research focuses on the politics of immigration, citizenship, and migrant illegality. “They learn later in life, after they’ve spent a lifetime being a part of the society. In that context, learning that you’re undocumented is completely shattering for one’s identity. At least it was for me. Suddenly, the things I wanted to do I actually couldn’t do because of my identity.”

Besides not being able to apply for a driver’s license, Wong discovered that being undocumented meant he’d have to make other adjustments. Having spent high school enrolled in all Honors and AP (Advanced Placement) classes, he’d now have to put aside his dream of going to college. Instead, he’d join his parents—selling toys at swap meets. He also had to figure out how his new identity as an undocumented immigrant would affect the relationships he’d built with his friends.

“I had to learn to navigate my personal relationships with others,” he says with some regret. “And, I didn’t do it very well. I didn’t tell any of my friends. I felt so lonely and isolated and I had nobody to talk to. I was ashamed. When I finally did tell somebody, I told my best friend, and the response was one that I didn’t expect.”

His best friend stopped speaking to him. But, around this time, when Wong was 18, he started dating Rose Bloomberg-Rissman, a high school classmate who, seeing that he was facing deportation, stepped in to help.

“I don’t think I told her until a couple months into us being a couple,” recalls Wong. “It became real when (in order to become a U.S. citizen) I had to go back to Hong Kong and wait 10 years. I think it was only then that she realized what it meant for me to be undocumented. She proposed to me, though I didn’t say yes right away. It was a tough choice and I was ready to go to Hong Kong.”

But, with their parents’ blessing, they married. Wong, though, wants to make it clear that his decision to marry wasn’t all about the green card. ”Eleven years later, and we’re still married. She’s the mother of my kids (triplet boys). The immediate assumption is that we got married so that I could stay, but I was ready to go.”
Wong, with his wife Rose, and their triplet boys.


Wong, with his wife Rose, and their triplet boys. (Paige Ogilvie)

Today, Wong is trying to help other undocumented youth. He has reached out to students, sharing his story in the hopes that they would come forward and, in turn, share their stories with him. And they have. In droves. The reason, says Wong, is simple.



“So much of this is cathartic. When you hear someone else’s story and you can sort of connect to that person because yours is similar, it is a healing experience. It empowers them. And people instantly want to get more involved. It’s becoming more and more common.”

Wong is also trying to combat assumptions made about undocumented youth. “We have just around 40 million immigrants in the U.S., and about 11 million are undocumented,” he observes. “The face of the undocumented immigrant is Latino, but there’s Asian, Afro-Caribbean, and undocumented people from Canada, France and Australia.”

Studying immigration politics and policy is personal for Wong, something he does in honor of his parents. “As a Chinese family, we aren’t very apt on sharing our feelings with each other. A lot of why I do it, is to show them my appreciation, my acknowledgement that I understand why we came here the way we did and why the struggle growing up was actually worth it.”

He adds, “Recently, I did a press briefing in Los Angeles about undocumented Asians, and my mom called me because she saw an article in a Chinese newspaper saying this is great. Even though we don’t talk about our situation directly, they get why I do this.”

Wong’s experience as an undocumented youth, or former “DREAMer,” as he calls himself, has led him to want to help other undocumented youth get on the path to citizenship. In addition to his work at UCSD, Wong serves as the director of the DREAM Project, a non-profit that collects the oral histories of undocumented students. Largely through his own personal funds, he also is making available 30 private grants of $100 each, to assist students in the costs of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) applications. For more information, contact dacagrant@gmail.com.

Wong is actively involved with the San Diego Dream Team, which plans to host a statewide summit of the California Alliance Dream Team Alliance, the first to be held in San Diego, beginning Friday. The purpose is to strategize for comprehensive immigration reform and other statewide policies.

Wong, who is committed to studying immigration trends and its influence on politics, asserts that immigration will be a major issue in 2013. Which is why for him, his work is just beginning. “It’s a perfect storm for San Diego in a positive way,” he says, “to get people energized and mobilized towards social justice, and I’m just glad to be part of it.”

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Wayne Cornelius awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle

Wayne A. Cornelius, CCIS Director Emeritus, has been honored with Mexico’s highest award for foreigners: the Order of the Aztec Eagle. Cornelius was selected “for his work of more than five decades to achieve greater and better understanding of Mexico in the United States”.

Read award presentation remarks 1 and 2 »


Two San Diegans awarded Mexico’s highest honor for foreigners (U-T San Diego)

UCSD scholar Wayne Cornelius and Rancho La Puerta Founder Deborah Szekely

BY SANDRA DIBBLE   JUNE 6, 2012

Deborah Szekely

For San Diegan Deborah Szekely, volunteerism and philanthropy are a way of life. (John Gastaldo • U-T)

Two San Diegans — a scholar who found fulfillment studying Mexican migrants and a refugee who built a successful spa in Baja California — are receiving Mexico’s highest honor for foreigners, it was announced Wednesday.

Wayne Cornelius, 66, a longtime professor at the University of California San Diego, was selected “for his work of more than five decades to achieve greater and better understanding of Mexico in the United States,” according to a statement by President Felipe Calderón.

Deborah Szekely, the 90-year-old founder of the internationally known Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, was praised for contributions “oriented to preserving the environmental, social and cultural heritage over the past seven decades.”

A third American recognized with the distinction — called the Order of the Aztec Eagle — is Rick Bayless, a chef who specializes in Mexican cuisine. He hosts the PBS television series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” which recently aired a segment on Baja California cuisine.

“Mexico has always been my focus, my passion,” Cornelius said. “I have unlimited respect and admiration for all those generations of migrants who have had the courage to leave their homes and try to make a life for themselves and their children in the United States — for all the obstacles they have faced in doing so.”

Cornelius and Szekely learned of their selection from U-T San Diego on Wednesday. The announcements were made in Diario Oficial de la Federación, the Mexican government’s official registry.

Szekely, who also founded the Golden Door spa in Escondido, has received much recognition as she celebrates her 90th birthday. But “this is the one that takes the cake,” she said.

She gives much credit to her daughter, Sarah Livia Szekely Brightwood, current president of Rancho La Puerta and the force behind much of the environmental work carried by the spa through its foundation.

In his proclamation, Calderón highlighted the spa’s community-service projects in Tecate, including:

  • environmental training and campouts for 25,000 children
  • protection of 2,000 acres of Rancho La Puerta through the 2004 establishment of a conservation easement with the Mexican environmental group Pronatura
  • and financing of a program to improve the urban zone around the Tecate River.

Close ties with the community have been key to the spa’s success, said Szekely, who moved to Tecate in 1940 with her husband, Edmond, as World War II refugees.

“What we did could never have been done in any other place,” she said. “My husband and I got there as undocumented aliens, no papers, no money. This (honor) is for the people who welcomed us.”


Wayne Cornelius

In his remarks for Cornelius, Calderón said the professor’s “research has influenced the manner in which shapers of opinion and decision-makers in the United States perceive the Mexican reality.”

The president cited Cornelius’ 38 years of teaching, noting that he “has trained a great number of experts on Mexico in different universities.” He also mentioned Cornelius’ role in founding the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies in 1979 and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies in 1999, both at UC San Diego.

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The Untold Future of American Politics

New York Times
CCIS Research Associate Zoltan Hajnal’s article on the future of American politics is published in The New York Times.


BY ZOLTAN HAJNAL and TAEKU LEE   JUNE 4, 2012

Volunteer

A volunteer for Mi Familia Vota working to register people to vote in Denver.
(Matthew Staver for The New York Times)

The demographic future of the United States is clear. Sometime around 2050 today’s racial and ethnic minorities will likely become a majority. Understanding that change is one of the keys to understanding the future of American politics, but not in the way that most people believe. The conventional view is that in the decades to come the growing minority population and its strong ties to the Democratic Party will be a boon to Democrats and a blight for Republicans.

But that view overlooks the two central features of America’s racial and ethnic minority population: ambivalence about both political parties, and at the moment, staggeringly low rates of political participation. Most Asian-American and Latino adults are not tied to either political party and most currently do not vote.

Many of the numbers do point to Democratic ascendance. On one side of the equation, the Republican Party has effectively become the party of white America. More than 90 percent of John McCain’s votes in 2008 came from white Americans. On the other side, the Democratic Party has largely won over the minority vote. In 2008 Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Latino vote, and 62 percent of the Asian-American vote. This pull toward the Democratic Party is not specific to Obama: in the 2010 Congressional elections, exit polls show that Democratic candidates garnered 91 percent of the black vote, 66 percent of the Latino vote and 59 percent of the Asian-American vote.

Putting together demographic trends with past performance, most observers and strategists say that Republican demise is all but inevitable. We don’t. Our research shows that the dominant force among minorities is not attachment to the Democratic Party but uncertainty about where they fit into American politics.

When asked in national surveys, most Latinos and Asian-Americans say that they don’t fit into a party at all. The largest segments of the Latino and Asian-American populations do not identify as Democrats, as the conventional wisdom would suggest, but rather as “nonidentifiers” – those who refuse altogether to answer a question about party identification or who claim that they do not think in partisan terms. Combined, these nonidentifiers and others who expressly state they are ‘independent’ make up the clear majority of both groups. All told, 56 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Asian-American identify as independent or as nonidentifiers. Even among blacks, there are signs of growing ambivalence. For example, almost 30 percent of blacks feel that the Democratic Party does not work hard for black interests.

Critically, this nonpartisan population is neither apolitical nor unreachable. A lot of racial and ethnic minorities are currently on the sidelines of American politics, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Today’s minorities are no different from the minorities of yesterday in one very important sense: They are politically approachable and readily mobilized. A range of recent experimental studies has shown that when politically inactive minorities are contacted by parties and especially when they are properly approached, many of them do become engaged and participate.

What this means is that the future of the minority vote, and consequently the balance of power in American politics, is still very much up for grabs. If either party wants to attain dominance, it ignores this segment of the American population at its own peril.

The real challenge is how. Targeting the “median voter” no longer makes sense. America is now too diverse with too many different sets of concerns and issues. It is far from obvious where today’s median voter lies and less than clear which segments of the electorate will be drawn to a strategy to vie for that median voter.

Instead, we suggest that to reach America’s increasingly mixed electorate, candidates and political parties should run a multifaceted and multiracial campaign. Rather than ignore race or use race to lure whites together into a largely exclusionary majority, the alternative we offer is a strategy of smartly and selectively narrow casting to different voters, where and when it is appropriate. Essentially, parties should endeavor to build future winning coalitions through a mixed strategy of broadly based meat-and-potatoes issues like taxes, the deficit, safety nets, and foreign policy that brand Democrats as Democrats and Republicans as Republicans with tightly packaged appeals to targeted electorates.

This strategy is complex. It entails collecting good focus group and polling data on groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans, then carefully combing through a political agenda, then finding a fit that homes in on issues of particular concern to groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans without repelling support from one’s party base or centrist Independents. For Latinos, that issue might be some narrow elements of immigration reform, like allowing children a path to citizenship through college or the military – a policy that was needlessly attacked by Republican leaders. For Asian-Americans, either party might make inroads without raising a ruckus by strengthening incentives for highly skilled immigrants or by finding non-polarizing ways of further supporting the enforcement of language accommodations in existing election laws. For African-Americans, now might be an opportune moment for either party to take a strong stand against Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law or especially egregious forms of racial profiling, without incurring a full-on political backlash.

The winnable set of issues may be thin, but the list is longer than you might think. Since the areas of unique concern to one group can often be inconsequential to the core concerns of a second (or third or fourth) group, this multipronged approach can slowly build up support from a fairly diverse array of interests. The key is to embrace the new reality of America’s diverse electorate through targeted issue-based appeals — rather than overlooking race altogether, making symbolic gestures, or seeing only zero-sum trade-offs between the continued loyalty of established racial groups and the burgeoning support of emerging groups.

The consequences are huge. Despite the Obama campaign’s remarkable mobilization of first-time Latino and Asian-American voters in 2008, more than half of voter-eligible citizens in these rapidly growing segments of the electorate stayed home. These are people who could be mobilized, who could be attracted to a party, and who could sway electoral outcomes. They should not be ignored.

At present, one party – the Democratic Party – has an edge with minority voters. But the eventual outcome of the battle for America’s diverse uncommitted population is far from settled. Ultimately, the extent to which minorities become fully politically incorporated and the success or failure of both political parties depends very much on how the Democrats and the Republicans approach America’s changing racial demographics.

Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee are the authors of “Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate.’ Hajnal is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Lee is professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Mexican Immigration to U.S. Slowed Significantly, Report Says

Wayne A. Cornelius, CCIS Director Emeritus, comments on the decrease in Mexican immigration to the United States.


BY JULIA PRESTON   APRIL 28, 2012

<Mexican Immigrantion Slows

Migrant workers in Mexicali, Mexico, waited to legally cross into Calexico, Calif. Many work for $9 an hour picking crops. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

In what the report called a “notable reversal of the historic pattern,” the number of Mexicans leaving rose sharply in the five years after 2005, while the new flow of migrants coming from Mexico into the United States fell steeply, Pew demographers found.

For the first time in at least two decades, the population of illegal immigrants from Mexico living in this country significantly decreased, according to the report. In 2011, about 6.1 million Mexicans were living here illegally, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, it said.

“We really haven’t seen anything like this in the last 30 or 40 years,” said Jeffrey Passel, the senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center and a co-writer of the report with D’Vera Cohn and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. The center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington that does not advocate policy positions, has provided some of the most reliable estimates for the elusive numbers of Mexican immigrants.

Over all, the report said, about 58 percent of an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico.

The report provides material for all sides in the fierce debate over immigration policy. A major episode in that debate will take place on Wednesday when the Supreme Court hears arguments over a law passed by Arizona in 2010 to expand the powers of the local and state police to conduct immigration enforcement.

Arizona officials say that tough local enforcement measures like SB 1070, the statute they passed, are the most effective way to curb illegal immigration because they pressure migrants who lack legal status to return home. Immigrant advocates say those measures serve to separate families and drive illegal immigrants into the shadows, and they point to prolonged high unemployment in this country as the primary reason for reduced immigration.

Mr. Passel said the data does not allow Pew demographers to say which factor was most important in reducing the population of illegal immigrants. The report cited a mix, including high unemployment in the United States, particularly in the construction industry; heightened border enforcement and increased deportations by the American authorities; and a long-term decline in birth rates in Mexico.

The migration from Mexico that began after 1970 brought, by far, the largest numbers of immigrants from one country in American history, the report said, with about 30 percent of 39.6 million immigrants today having been born in Mexico. The 12 million Mexican-born people who live in the United States — about one in every 10 Mexicans in the world — comprise more than all the immigrants in any other country, the Pew report said.

The report presents a striking change from earlier findings by the Pew Hispanic Center on the number of Mexicans who have been returning to their country. While earlier Pew studies said the data did not show any exodus, the report published Monday includes new data from the 2010 Mexican census revealing that about twice as many Mexicans returned home from 2005 to 2010 than in the previous five years. In all, about 1.4 million people moved from the United States to Mexico in that time, the Mexican census showed.

The report cited Mexican data showing a big increase in the number of United States citizen children with Mexican parents who were living in Mexico — to about 500,000 in 2010 from about 240,000 in 2000. Some of those Americans are the children of deportees, the data suggested.

The report found that more Mexicans who were deported after coming to the United States to work said they were not likely to try to re-enter. About 20 percent of deportees in 2010 said they would not try to return, up from 7 percent in 2005. Still, in 2010, six in every 10 deportees said they would try to re-enter within seven days, according to the new Pew report.

The report did little to quell a controversy among demographers over the scope and causes of return migration to Mexico.

Steven A. Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a group that advocates reduced immigration, noted that he had first reported an outflow of Mexicans in 2009. “The evidence is very strong,” Mr. Camarota said, “that there is a slowdown of people coming from Mexico and a big increase in people leaving.”

Wayne A. Cornelius, a director of the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health at the University of California, said that in his most recent field research, which drew on interviews with migrants in Mexico and California, there were no signs of increased return migration. The “overwhelming pattern,” he said, “is that migrants who have made it to the United States and found employment, particularly if it is relatively stable despite the recession, are hanging in there and riding it out.”

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