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Asian-Americans On The Rise


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's June, the beginning of the summer wedding season and a lot of couples are tying the knot, but what happens when your plans for a dream wedding in your hometown are the subject of - well, let's say - opinions of complete strangers?

Well, that's what happened when one lesbian couple wanted to have their wedding in Jamaica, where one of the brides was born. We'll find out how they dealt with it. It's our latest conversation for LGBT Pride Month, where we've been exploring different aspects of the LGBT experience. That's ahead in the program.

But, first, we want to turn our attention to a new study that sheds yet more light on who we are as Americans. The Pew Research Center is out with a study that finds that Asian-Americans have surpassed Hispanics as the fastest growing racial group in the nation. Also, Asian immigrants have surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants. It also finds that more than 18 million Asian-Americans living in the U.S. are the highest earning and best educated racial group in the country.

We wanted to talk more about what that means, so we've called on Paul Taylor. He is the co-author of the study and executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. Also with us in Washington, D.C., Benjamin Wu. He is the vice chair of the U.S.-Asia Institute. He participated in a panel discussion on the study sponsored by Pew. Also with us, Deepa Iyer. She is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and the chair of the National Council of Asian-Pacific Americans. That's a coalition of 30 Asian-Pacific American organizations.

Welcome to all of you. Thanks so much for coming.

BENJAMIN WU: Thank you, Michel.

PAUL TAYLOR: Great to be here.

DEEPA IYER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Paul, I'm going to start with you because I think the biggest surprise for many people hearing this will be that Asian-Americans have surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants. Can you just tell us how that happened?

TAYLOR: It happened over the course of the last several years. The lines crossed, probably, in 2009 or 2010. A lot of the crossing of the lines is a result of the very sharp reduction in inflows of Hispanics and that's probably related to the very sour economy here. Jobs have been the magnet for Hispanic immigrants. Probably also related to increased border enforcement, the deportation policies, etc.

Despite the bad economy here, Asian immigration has continued to go up. It has gone up dramatically, but the lines did cross, so now there are over 400,000 Asian immigrants annually coming in. That's about 36 percent of all immigrants coming in. Hispanics are about 31 percent. The remainder are whites and blacks.

MARTIN: And the immigrants coming from the sixth largest Asian source countries receive green cards based - what - on family members already here?

TAYLOR: The biggest route - pathway into this country is family reunification. About two-thirds of Asians come through that pathway, but the remaining third come through green cards, come through H-1B visas. There are special provisions. Immigration law is very complicated, but for the last 20 or so years, there has been something called the H-1B Program, which is designed to ease the pathway for highly skilled students, you know, and folks with highly skilled occupations. Asians have taken advantage of that and, by far, they're getting the greatest number of those slots.

MARTIN: Among immigrants from these Asian nations, 27 percent received green cards based on employer sponsorship. That's compared with eight percent of other immigrants who did so this year. It's varied throughout the past decade, but has been markedly higher for Asian immigrants than for others, which is what we learned from your report. Yeah.

TAYLOR: This reflects their very high levels of education and high levels of skills. This is an exceptional group of incoming immigrants. If you just look at the immigrants who have arrived within the last few years from Asian countries, more than six in 10 have their college degrees. This is twice the share of immigrants from any other part of the world and it's twice the share of Asians themselves 30 years ago, so one of the things that's happened is, over the last several decades, in part because of H-1B programs, in part because of changes in sending countries, you have an increasingly high end - this is a highly skilled workforce of the 21st century.

And it's - you know, it's part of a more digitally interconnected world. Particular strengths in science and engineering and some of the IT fields and we see it both in education - 45 percent of all graduate degrees in this country that are awarded in engineering are awarded to Asians, either immigrants or U.S.-born Asians. It's a very high achieving population.

MARTIN: Benjamin, what's the takeaway for you from this report?

WU: Well, I thought the report was very comprehensive and voluminous and it provided a lot of quantifiable data that will allow for Americans to fully appreciate the spectrum of values, talents and other aspects of our life that Asian-Americans can support. And I think the takeaway that I'd like to see from those in the corporate world, in the political world, in education fields, is that the Asian-Americans continue to play a very vibrant role in the fabric of our society, that they bring many talents.

And, as a consequence, that corporations should continue to make sure to market to that segment, that they continue to hire executives to lead those corporations, that they put Asian-Americans on their boards, at law firms, hire more Asian-American partners and...

MARTIN: You don't think they're doing that now?

WU: Well, I think that there is room for improvement. I think the figures are demonstrating, in recent years, a growth, but not quite to the representative levels of the population and I think what this report can do is provide that foundation to better understand the role - the emerging role of Asian-Americans in our nation and the need to be able to address Asian-Americans as a viable and strong force for the future of our country.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, clearly, that's the takeaway. One of the things that I was fascinated by were how many activist organizations sounded cautionary notes about this material. Deepa, I wanted to ask you about this because I think some people might find it puzzling. You know, the number of groups, including yours, that said things like - you released a statement saying that the study could lead some to draw conclusions that reflect inaccurate stereotypes of Asian-Americans. Could you talk more about that? What is to be - what's the problem with a report that says that people are hardworking, well educated, even better educated than the rest of the population? There are also some other values metrics, for example, about how highly marriage is valued among Asian-Americans. So what are you concerned about?

IYER: Well, we think that this report is a really important one to start a sorely needed dialog about Asian-Americans in this country because the coalition that I'm here representing - we work daily with Asian-Americans and organizations on the ground and we know both the successes and the trials and tribulations that Asian-Americans face.

So, in terms of the framing and interpretation of the findings of this report, it's really important to understand that the community's not a monolith and that we can't use this information to think that it is the norm across all Asian-Americans because, historically, our communities have either been seen as model minorities or we've been put into the box of being disloyal, suspicious or we've been put into a box of foreigners who take away jobs.

And the reality is that none of these stereotypes are true. Right? Our communities are extremely diverse, especially when you get into the subgroup, disaggregation. So while we think that this report is a really good jumping off point, we want Americans - we want the media - we want stakeholders - to also understand that we need to have a fuller picture of our communities and understand the needs and challenges that many face.

MARTIN: When you talk about disaggregating, talk a little bit more about what you mean. You mean that, for example...

IYER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...the experience of Vietnamese-Americans or Korean-Americans might be very different from, say, South Asians, people from India? Even people from India and Pakistan might be having very different experiences.

IYER: Exactly.


IYER: The community is absolutely diverse in those ways and, when you get down to that disaggregation, we don't really have a lot of disaggregated data. That's something that we're looking to research centers and government agencies to do, but when you look at some of the statistics - for example, we have 2.3 million Asian-Americans who are uninsured. We've got, in the Southeast Asian community, 40 percent of Southeast Asians who are of ages between 25 and 34 have not been to college.

When you look at the immigrant community, about a million of those who are undocumented or actually of Asian-American descent and so what's important is that we are able to lift up these stories and these experiences of individuals who might not be making it just as much as we are in terms of the success stories that we want to celebrate because it's really about what stakeholders and government agencies will do with this information.

MARTIN: We're talking about a new study released by the Pew Research Center that says Asian-Americans are the highest income, best educated and fastest growing racial group in the U.S.

My guests are Paul Taylor. He's co-author of the study, the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. Also with us, Benjamin Wu, vice chair of the U.S.-Asia Institute. He participated in a panel discussion sponsored by Pew around the study. Also with us, Deepa Iyer. That's who was speaking just now. She's the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and chair of the National Council of Asian-Pacific Americans.

Paul, talk a little bit about what Deepa was talking about, if you would, just pulling apart...


MARTIN: Disaggregation is kind of a fancy word for pulling apart some of the information about how different experiences of different groups of national origin are.

TAYLOR: It's a great point. It's a very heterogeneous community. We did a survey of - a nationally representative survey of all Asian-Americans. We did it in seven Asian languages in addition to English. Our respondents were from 22 different countries of origin, so we're very proud that we had the full breadth of the Asian-American experience represented, but then we also, in effect, did six additional surveys. We had enough sample size to be able to say something with representative samples about the six largest country of origin groups - China, Korea, Japan, India and the Philippines.

And we find what's interesting is that, if you add them up into a single group, you find that they are very distinctive compared with the U.S. population as a whole on some of the socioeconomic metrics you've talked about, on some of the attitudinal measures and the values.

But then, when you look inside and you compare the different groups, you also find large differences. For example, on the high levels of education, you have Indian-Americans. Seventy percent of Indian-American adults have a college degree or more. Vietnamese-Americans, 26 percent have a college degree or more. Similar differences on income, similar differences on poverty rates. Some of the leading groups have poverty rates that are higher than the U.S. population as a whole. Others have poverty rates that are lower. And on and on it goes.

We looked at group relations. We looked at attitudes towards intermarriage. This group - 29 percent of all recent Asian newlyweds married a non-Asian. This is the highest rate of out-marriage of any race group in the country, but very different patterns. The Indians are much less likely to do this than the Japanese, for example, and on it goes.

MARTIN: I wanted to - Benjamin, I wanted to talk about some of those relationships within groups and other groups. Some Asian-American groups are more positive about relations with whites and other U.S.-Asian groups, but less positive about relations with Hispanics, most negative about relations with blacks. In fact, Korean-Americans most likely to say that they don't get along with blacks. Compared with other U.S.-Asian groups, Korean-Americans have an especially negative view of relations with blacks and along with Vietnamese-Americans. It's a very - you know, there's a lot of variation on this point and I just wanted to ask, does that concern you? What do you make of that?

WU: Well, it's especially relevant, given the recent death of Rodney King and the fact that we just had the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots that was precipitated by the tension between the Korean-American community and the African-American community in Los Angeles. And then, given some of the recent statements made by council member Barry here in Washington.

MARTIN: Marion Barry in Washington, D.C. He was talking about - made some disparaging remarks about shops owned by Asian-Americans. I don't know if he singled out Koreans, per se, but I take your point.

WU: But he - the point is that there needs to be more work done and the survey results seem to suggest that there's maybe an openness for dialog, but there needs to be more direct communication. There needs to be more engagement between the Asian-American community and other organizations.

I think, if you look at the next generation of leaders in the Asian-American community, everyone seems to be very open to not just a Pan-Asian approach to demonstrate the collective strength of the Asian-American community from the political commerce and a perspective that will strengthen the country.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about that, though? Do people with - and I'm not going to make you the spokesperson for, you know, all groups because that would be - no one likes that. But I am interested in whether you even ascribe to the notion of Asian-Americans, kind of a Pan-Asian perspective. I mean, do people really see themselves in that way in your experience? Or do they see themselves as Chinese-American or Vietnamese-American or Indian or Pakistan - you see what I'm saying? Do people...

WU: Well, I think...

MARTIN: Do you see yourself in this report? In the way this report describes you, do you see yourself?

WU: I think that people see themselves as Asian-Americans, but they also self-identify - for example, for myself, I know that I'm a Chinese-American and there are Indian-Americans and other subgroups. And the Asian-American umbrella, in a sense, is created by political organizations and other structural organizations that made it easy to bring together a disparate group of people from different nations.

But, as a result, though, this next generation of leaders had been comfortable working within this Pan-Asian umbrella and, as a consequence, I think we do see a great deal of support within the Pan-Asian and Asian-Americans. For example, we have a record number of Asian-Americans running for elected office on the federal level and, if you talk to the candidates, they are receiving support from not just within - people within their own ethnic group, but also from a great number of Asian-American supporters and I think that everyone understands within the Asian-American community that, in order to lift up their group, they need to also support the greater Asian-American umbrella.

MARTIN: Interesting, too, but that's where I wanted to go next and we only have about two minutes left, so make the most of it. I'm interested in your take on what the implications of this report might be because we are in an election year. Worth noting, there are only 10 members of Congress who are Asian-American, compared - for those who are interested - with 43 African-American members and 27 Hispanic-American members of Congress. So do you see political implications of this new knowledge going forward? Sort of a new consciousness and information around who Asian-American citizens are?

IYER: Sure. I think that Asian-Americans, along with our demographic growth and our visibility in different parts of the country - we're growing in many, many sectors and I think that politics is that arena, as well. There are more voting age Asian-Americans now than ever before, so we are going to see Asian-Americans being really engaged in the civic and political life of this country.

But I think, overall, you know, the takeaway really is that we need to tell a full picture of our communities and we need to make sure that we are not perpetuating a one dimensional narrative about our communities because we are so different.

I'll just leave you with a quick example. You know, if you're talking about, say, a school system and a particular school, it's really important that teachers and school systems understand that, while you might have, you know, the future spelling bee champion in your classrooms, you might also have, you know, students who feel bullied, Sehk-Muslim children who are being harassed because of their name or religious affiliation. So it's really important that people don't come away - at all levels, whether you're a teacher or whether you're in state government, whether you are a politician - with a one dimensional narrative about our communities.

MARTIN: Deepa Iyer is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and the chair of the National Council of Asian-Pacific Americans. Paul Taylor is the co-author of the Pew study, The Rise of Asian-Americans, and executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. And Benjamin Wu is the vice chair of the U.S.-Asia Institute. They were all kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you all so much for talking about this very interesting report.

IYER: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

WU: Thank you, Michel.


MARTIN: Up next, Jamaica is the destination of choice for many couples looking to hold a dream wedding, but when one lesbian couple was looking for a place to host their special day, resort owners told them, no room at the inn.

NICOLE DENNIS-BENN: I'm just as worthy as a Jamaican, as well. That's my home, so why can't I have a wedding there?

MARTIN: So how did Nicole Dennis-Benn and Dr. Emma Benn pull off their dream wedding? They'll tell us. It's part of our series on pride month recognizing the LGBT experience and it's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: He's made a name for himself on the "Steve Harvey Morning Show" with hilarious prank phone calls that seem as natural as can be, but comedian Thomas Miles says that success can be a double-edged sword.

THOMAS MILES: The hard part is to keep hitting home runs and it's hard.

MARTIN: We think nephew Tommy will knock it out of the park. He kicks off our Make Me Laugh Summer Series next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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