Hongling Zhou came to Maryland for a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and then waited 14 years to become a U.S. citizen.
“It was not easy, but we did it with dignity,” she told a Maryland state senate committee last month. Zhou, a mother of two Howard County school children and statistician for a federal agency, said that’s the way immigrants should come to America.
“Everybody should follow the law of the land,” Zhou said. “Nobody should be above the law.”
As state and local lawmakers in Maryland consider proposals to protect undocumented immigrants by limiting cooperation with federal authorities, some of the most persistent and passionate voices in opposition have been Chinese American.
Organized under the banners of groups such as the Maryland Chinese American Network and the Asian American GOP Coalition, they have testified by the dozens against the Maryland Trust Act, which would bar the use of state and local funds to aid federal immigration enforcement. It would also prohibit police from asking about immigration status during traffic stops or other activities.
Of the 32 speakers opposed to the bill at last month’s state House Judiciary Committee hearing, 27 were Chinese Americans. They turned out in similar numbers at a marathon Rockville City Council session on March 6, speaking against a bill that would codify existing policies barring police from enforcing federal immigration law. The same groups organized to fight a similar measure that narrowly passed the Howard County Council in February before it was vetoed by County Executive Allan Kittleman (R).
It is an unusual burst of activism from a community of mostly first-generation immigrants, concentrated in Montgomery and Howard counties, who otherwise have largely avoided engagement with local issues. And it is activism that places them at odds with the stance of more traditional Asian American advocacy groups.
Leaders of the movement say President Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda has resonated with at least a segment of the roughly 60,000 Chinese Americans in the Maryland suburbs. They depict undocumented immigrants as a source of increased crime — a claim not supported by local or national data — and a financial drain on schools. The prospect of enhanced protection for those here illegally seems to offend this particular group of immigrants at a core level.
Hong Chen told Rockville council members that he traveled to Canada rather than remain in the country illegally when his visa expired in 1996. He was able to return when his wife received an H1b visa, designed for foreign workers with specialized skills.
“Local government should not pick and choose which laws to enforce.”said Chen, 55, who lives in Potomac and manages a dental office.
The advocates’ outspoken stance has placed them at odds with the mainstream of Asian American civil rights groups and elected leaders, who generally support “sanctuary” communities and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
They say the Asian American groups in Maryland have been blinded to the struggles of others by their comfortable existence in two of the country’s wealthiest counties, supported by advanced degrees and business success.
“Right now, sitting in the luxury of our own homes, it’s easy to frame this in the context of ‘us’ (the Asian American community) and ‘them’ (predominantly the Latino community, but others as well),” state Del. Clarence Lam (D-Howard), one of 78 House co-sponsors of the Trust Act, wrote in an open letter to constituents last month. “This is easy to do because most of the undocumented people we see locally in Maryland are Latinos.”
Lam, a physician and son of Chinese immigrants, said the national data should actually be a wake-up call: Asian Americans are the fastest-growing part of the undocumented population, totaling 1.5 million of the estimated 11 million who have entered the country illegally.
“While ‘they’ are not ‘us’ right now, we could soon be ‘them,’” Lam wrote. “The outpouring of animosity and anger that we’re seeing now. . . could continue to turn towards us.”
State Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery), a second-generation Chinese immigrant and Trust Act co-sponsor, confronted the activists in Annapolis on Feb. 21, shortly before a hearing on the bill, which is currently before a legislative working group that is discussing possible amendments.
“You are Chinese immigrants? You are against this bill? Where is your heart?” Lee said, according to Zhou and Cheng Tu, advocacy director for the Maryland Chinese American Network, both of whom had come to the hearing.
The discussion grew so heated that the Chinese American delegation was asked to leave the hearing room, Zhou and Tu said. They were allowed back later to testify.
“I am totally fine that she feels strongly about this,” said Tu, who came to Maryland from Hangzhou in 1995 to study engineering. “I am not fine that she tried to discourage people in the community who have different opinions.”
Lee said there was no attempt to discourage their testimony, and that she only expressed surprise at their presence. “I thought we left as friends,” she said. “I was glad and proud that they came.”
Janelle Wong, director of the Asian American Studies Program and professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, said the Montgomery-Howard group is a “a small, vocal opposition to immigrant rights” that does not represent the entire community.
“Part of the problem is that Asian Americans are not mobilized around many issues by political parties or candidates. So they’re highly visible when they do get involved,” said Wong, who conducted a survey with two UCLA political scientists after the 2016 election that showed 16 percent of Asian Americans believe undocumented immigrants should be immediately deported.
Age and life-experience may be drivers of the debate, some experts said. Many of the activists came to the United States 20 to 30 years ago and may be less familiar with the long history of laws that virtually banned all Chinese immigration — and naturalization of those already here — from the 1880s through the 1940s.
“They have had a harder time understanding some of the experiences of undocumented immigrants within a larger civil rights context,” said Kham Moua, senior manager of policy and communications for OCA–Asian Pacific American Advocates.
The Chinese American advocates said they first mobilized politically on issues involving schools. In early 2016, parents gathered signatures to name a new Clarksburg-Damascus middle school after Alan Cheung, the first Asian American elected to the Montgomery Board of Education. The board ultimately named the school for Clarksburg philanthropist Hallie Wells.
Last summer, a Montgomery Chinese parents’ group challenged a school system report that included recommendations for increased diversity in gifted and talented programs by changing admissions policies. Asian American students are overrepresented in the programs compared to their share of the district’s enrollment (14 percent). The school system has not yet acted on the portion of the report covering diversity issues.
Tu said his group intends to stay in the local arena, and is considering formation of a political action committee for the 2018 election cycle.
“I want to be a full American,” he said.