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America's Immigration Rhetoric Out Of Touch With The Numbers


For all of Donald Trump's talk about building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants, most migrants don't come across the Mexican border. In the past few years, Asians have overtaken Hispanics in terms of both legal and illegal migration. A new study by the Pew Research Center says Asians will be the largest immigrant group by 2065. Erika Lee is a professor of Asian-American history at the University of Minnesota and the author of "The Making of Asian America." She joins us now from Irvine, Calif. Thanks for being with us.

ERIKA LEE: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, you know, Americans, not just Donald Trump, don't seem to focus on Asian immigration. We don't see the same backlash that we see towards Latinos and Hispanics. Why do you think that is?

LEE: I think that when Americans think about immigration, the group that comes up is Latinos. And more specifically, Latino immigration is considered a problem - a problem to be solved, that there's too many, that they're draining economic resources, that they're not assimilating.

And this, in fact, is really in contrast to what we know are the facts, that Mexican immigration, in particular, is at a net zero right now. So that means that there are the same number of immigrants from Mexico returning, or leaving the country, than there is coming in, whereas immigration from Asia, and particularly China, and India, is growing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they're coming over here on visas and then just overstaying them. That's how they remain in the country legally.

LEE: That's the pattern, yes. So some of this rhetoric about building walls and increasing border security is a little out of date in terms of the so-called Latino immigration problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that we don't focus on Asian-Americans as much because they've always been viewed, in a way, as the model minority? Asian-Americans have the highest income. They're the best-educated of any racial group in the United States.

LEE: It's absolutely right, that there are different ways in which different immigrant groups are perceived by Americans. And I think that that model minority message is absolutely part of it, that Asian immigrants are somehow better than other immigrants, that they're doing it right, that they're achieving economically, achieving academically.

Even though we know that the statistics show us that that's actually not the case. There's great diversity in the Asian-American population and labeling them all as model minorities is inaccurate and also misleading.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this trend is going to change the debate about immigration in America, illegal immigration in particular?

LEE: I do because already you see that some of the language in the headlines about Asian immigration - Asians on pace to overtake Hispanic surge of immigration - these code words, these terms, they're very anxiety-producing to those of us who study immigration and who know the history because it wasn't so long ago that Asian immigrants were barred from entering the country, couldn't become naturalized citizens, were considered the yellow peril. The model minority idea is actually a rather recent invention. So those of us who know the history are a little concerned the history might repeat itself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Erika Lee is the author of "The Making of Asian America." Thank you so much.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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