By Curtis S. Chin
WASHINGTON — Numerous third-generation Chinese-Americans in New York or elsewhere have no doubt joined me in being told, “You speak English so well,” or asked, “Where did you learn your English?” Having an “Asian” face with a “U.S. ambassador” title, I am often asked “where I am really from.” Or perhaps more politely, how many generations back did my family emigrate from Asia to the United States?
I am generally forgiving, even to the comments of how “good’ my English is, as no ill will is intended. And often it reflects the speaker’s, American or not, own experiences with immigration and immigrants. For them, a Korean immigrant works at the local convenience store, and a Chinese one, at the local restaurant. High-skilled engineers or U.S. diplomats do not typically come to mind — even at a time where U.S. President Barack Obama has redefined what a U.S. president looks like, and immigrants have helped build U.S. companies and create jobs, from Silicon Valley to your local sandwich shop. For numerous countries in the Asia-Pacific region, immigration remains a contentious issue. Consider Australia’s controversial efforts to intercept at sea a new generation of “boat people” fleeing impoverished, strife-torn nations. Or reflect on Japan’s own much-documented immigration laws effectively barring many ethnic Koreans from becoming citizens despite years of living, and indeed being born, in that country. Even in my own country, perhaps the nation best known as a land of immigrants and their descendants — the United States — the debate rages on. U.S. President Barack Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have been unable to move a recalcitrant Congress, split between Republicans and Democrats, to act. As I have argued, however, on CNBC and elsewhere, there is at least one area where all political parties should be able to come together for some meaningful, near-term action. That is focusing on the untapped potential of the many skilled men and women who have already come to the United States through legal channels. This includes tens of thousands from India, China and elsewhere in Asia. Unfortunately, this issue has generally been overlooked amidst the focus on the flow of unauthorized, low-skilled immigrants into the United States — the vast majority of them from south of the U.S. border, but also including numerous unskilled immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. The language of immigration today also is increasingly politicized, adding little to a constructive discussion: Illegal vs. undocumented. Amnesty vs. a path to citizenship. In the slow-to-no-growth global economy, whether in the United States, Europe or Asia, politicians too often fear the consequences of action, not inaction. Some worry about the impact on core labor constituencies of potential competition by low-wage immigrants. Others ponder what numerous new citizens of Asian and Latino origin will mean for future elections. Yet, this larger, ongoing U.S. debate — and admittedly an important one — on immigration should not stand in the way of making smaller-scale updates to what has been the traditional path forward for many seeking the American dream.