Immigration reform deals with a spectrum of ethnicities, and the lack of attention the general public gives the Asian-American community in this national debate is disturbing, Rep. Judy Chu said.
The Asian-American and Pacific Islander group makes up about 40 percent of the 4.3 million immigrants backlogged in the family immigration system, said Chu, D-Pasadena.
"Asians are heavily disadvantaged by the per country quota system that treats a country like Belgium the same way it would with people from China," said Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. "Obviously they are vastly different in population."
President Barack Obama and Chu on Monday spoke about comprehensive immigration reform in San Francisco's Chinatown. They spoke just miles away from Angel Island, where in the 1900s about 300,000 people temporarily lived before truly entering the U.S.
"With the Asian-American population, there is the added issue that we suffered a lot during the Chinese Exclusion Act (of 1882)," Chu said. "Chinese-Americans were expressly named that they would be excluded from coming. It is the only law Congress passed that actually specifically named an ethnic group for exclusion."
In total, about 11 million people in the U.S. -- including more than a million from Asia -- are here illegally, Obama said.
They have "no real way to come forward and get on the right side of the law," Obama said in his speech. "It's not smart. It's not fair. It doesn't make sense. And we have kicked this particular can down the road long enough."
Asians recently surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants to the United States, reported Pew Research.
"More than six-in-ten adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor's degree," a 2012 Pew Research report said. "This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals, and almost surely makes the recent Asian arrivals the most highly educated cohort of immigrants in U.S. history."
The Senate earlier this year approved a bill that includes a 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants who pay back taxes and fines and also learn English. But many House Republicans say the Senate bill simply rewards immigrants who broke the law.
Speaker John Boehner has yet to put some kind of immigration bill on the House floor.
The U.S. invites bright students from around the world to study in the United States, often only to send them to their home countries "to create new jobs and start new businesses someplace else," Obama said.
Tommy Tseng, 30, is one of those smart, young individuals. His parents emigrated from Taiwan in 1996. They came on tourist visas but overstayed because of economic reasons, said Tseng, a resident of Monterey Park.
"The fortunate thing is that I was able to readjust my status right before I went to UCLA, and that enabled me to pay in-state tuition and get financial aid," he said. "In many ways, having permanent status as legal permanent alien enabled me to do what I am doing today, which is public service."
Asians make up about 40  percent of the DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) in the UC system, Chu said. People in the Philippines can wait as long as 40 years, though the average is 20 years, Chu said.
Tseng graduated magna cum laude and went on to graduate school at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.
He obtained citizenship when he was 22 and now works as a field representative and case worker in Chu's Pasadena office.
Before he could get "out of the shadows," Tseng said he remembered getting sick and not visiting doctors because his family didn't have money and because they worried the doctor would be obligated to report them.
"Immigration reform is so important because it just enables people to make contributions to society," Tseng said. "Having my status readjusted, it enabled me to go to college and really dedicate myself to public service. I've been in the public sector for the last 10 years. I have worked for labor unions. I have worked for and sit on the board of nonprofits, and now I work as a staff member for a member of Congress. None of this would've been possible (without legal status)."