Bernie Sanders on Asian American & Pacific Islander Rights

Bernie Sanders recognizes the many ways Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) play an important role in our economy and the civic and political life of America.  He is also aware of the many ways AAPIs are discriminated against. For decades he has spoken out against the economic exploitation of migrant workers – including victims of trafficking – and he has supported legislation to end these practices. He opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) knowing that free trade agreements hurt rather than help workers. Improving job opportunities for everyone including AAPIs will help those who are struggling to find good paying jobs.  Bernie believes we must remove the cultural, linguistic, and bureaucratic barriers that prevent AAPIs from accessing basic social services including education and healthcare.

America’s immigration system is “profoundly broken,” and Bernie supports immigration reform that will address the legal status of the roughly 11 million undocumented people in our country. Bernie not only supports visa reform, securing the border, and protecting both guest workers and undocumented workers from labor exploitation he also believes that “hundreds of new judges” are necessary to expedite the processing of asylum claims by immigrants fleeing persecution or violence. 

Racism & Exploitation: Bernie wants to reform the structural policies that reinforce racism and exploitation against AAPIs.

Economic Inequality: Decades of unjust and ineffective economic policies that favor those in power have resulted in historic levels of income and wealth inequality. This especially impacts minorities and immigrants.

Education: Bernie supports a more accessible and comprehensive education system. He believes this will create a more competitive workforce and informed society.

Immigration: Bernie supports comprehensive immigration reform that will unite families and bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. Bernie wants to create a clear pathway to citizenship for both those who were raised here and parents of citizens.

Health & Human Services: Many AAPIs have cultural and linguistic factors that make it challenging to access health and human services. Bernie works toward providing better and more diverse access for AAPIs who may be more cautious or have language barriers in seeking assistance.

Racism & Exploitation

Many of the stereotypes and disadvantages AAPIs face are reinforced by corporate policies, international deals on trade and visas, and a broken immigration system. Racism and exploitation against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders must end, and the structures that support racial inequality must be reformed.

Huh? How are AAPI stereotypes related to those policies?

Racism can be complex and much of the racism against AAPIs is structurally built into the system. We are led to believe that all AAPIs are successful and doing well economically and so we overlook the challenges that many AAPIs face. This creates a “model minority” myth that stereotypes AAIPs as people who will succeed if they work hard enough. Only the successes are acknowledged while the many AAIPs who struggle with economic exploitation and legitimate unmet educational or vocational needs are ignored.

International trade agreements open markets for corporations, which have long relied on exploiting workers in Southeast Asia with low wages and abysmal working conditions. As Bernie has pointed out, “Immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities in many parts of the world not only have been subjected to exploitation, but also have been abused as scapegoats for the economic troubles caused by corporate globalization.” 

This dynamic of racist stereotypes having broader social and economic implications is wonderfully explained by this video:

Wow, that’s a lot to take in. What are some specific examples of this exploitation?

One of the main sources of exploitation is from corporations abusing the worker visa program, as explained in, On Immigration, Bernie Sanders is Correct:

Many employers have used guestworker programs to avoid hiring U.S. workers, or have replaced their existing workforce with guestworkers after first forcing U.S. workers to train their guestworker replacements as a condition of their severance packages. Employers substitute guestworkers for Americans because guestworkers can be legally paid tens of thousands of dollars less than similarly skilled U.S. workers. Young foreign workers in the country on J-1 “cultural exchange” visas have been mistreated and forced to live in filthy basements while being paid $1 an hour, and even coerced into “sex slavery.” The exploitation inherent in all of these guestworker programs is a feature of them, not a bug.

While these workers are from a variety of countries, a significant number of those who receive nonimmigrant visas are from Asian and Pacific regions.

How does Bernie want to fix this?

Bernie doesn’t want to end guestworker programs, he wants to stop businesses from exploiting international workers by rewarding companies who are following the law and cracking down on those that don’t. In 2007, he cosponsored the H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, which would increase protections for workers, close loopholes allowing companies to skirt regulations, and impose harsher penalties for violations of the law. 

In 2010, Bernie introduced the Increasing American Wages and Benefits Act which would prevent companies from hiring recruiters who travel to foreign countries to seek, coerce, and commit fraud against potential workers.

Proponents of new visa policies claim the visa program attracts and retains the “best and brightest” immigrants in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields with the goal of providing them with permanent residency. However, data shows that the top ten users of the H-1B guest worker program are all offshore outsourcing firms. As Bernie pointed out in 2015, “these firms are responsible for shipping large numbers of American information technology jobs to India and other countries.”

In a 2013 interview with the Washington Post, Bernie said that he does not support “under the guise of immigrant reform, a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers.” While he understands that in agriculture and STEM, foreign labor is needed, he believes that, with the way things are currently run, “this is a massive effort to attract cheap labor, a great disservice to American workers.”

Bernie is also very concerned with the exploitation of guest workers. He stresses that guest workers “have been routinely cheated out of wages, held virtually captive by employers who have seized their documents, forced to live in unspeakable inhumane conditions and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.” Some guest worker programs have been called “close to slavery.”

How has Bernie supported visa reform?

Bernie voted for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, Congress’s most recent attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. In addition to providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, this legislation also proposed changes to the H-1B visa program, increasing the cap to 110,000 to 180,000 per year (up from 65,000) while protecting the American workforce. 

The bill further proposed a new visa for entrepreneurs, a W visa for lower-skilled workers, and additional visas and Green Cards for students who have STEM degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.

Bernie cosponsored the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2013, which aimed to raise wages for H-1B workers, required employers to make an effort to hire American workers first by posting job openings publicly, and prevented abuse of the H-1B program by increasing fees for employers who are heavily dependent on H-1B workers

What about more explicit forms of exploitation?

Both labor and sex trafficking are very common, both domestically and abroad and its very profitable. At least 403,000 people in the United States are living in conditions of modern slavery. In the U.S. the vast majority of victims of trafficking are immigrants, many are children. Human traffickers prey on kids in the U.S. foster care system. Internationally, American tourists are among the worst offenders when it comes to “sex tourism” particularly in South Asian countries.

Bernie has supported many anti-trafficking bills, including co-sponsoring the sweeping Victims of Trafficking & Violence Protection Act of 2000. This legislation established the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons which issues yearly reports detailing human trafficking investigations and offers T visas to  international or undocumented trafficking victims and their families.

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Do our international trade agreements have anything to do with labor trafficking?

Unfortunately, yes – particularly labor trafficking which forces 40.3 million people into modern slavery. For decades, Bernie has warned that our pro-corporate free trade policies feed into human rights abuses in the labor supply chain, and he has taken steps to eliminate U.S. involvement in every instance.

Back in 1998 Bernie called out Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for his decision to continue dealing with Indonesian President Suharto, a corrupt billionaire dictator known for human rights abuses and exploiting workers:

 

Following this hearing, Bernie worked with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to draft an amendment, §262p–4p: Encouragement of Fair Labor Practices, which requires the Treasury Secretary to screen all potential foreign borrowers for workers’ rights abuses and to submit an annual report to Congress detailing the human rights records of all borrowing countries.

What has Bernie done more recently to end U.S. involvement in worker exploitation?

Overall, Bernie has cosponsored at least 15 labor trafficking bills, all of which died in committee. One of the most notable pieces of legislation was the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act of 2007. In a Senate hearing, Bernie said:

“In my view, if, to the degree that the people of our country know what is happening in countries like China, where people are being exploited so ruthlessly, where their lives are endangered by horrendous working conditions and exposure to harmful chemicals, to the degree that the American people understand that – and they are understanding it more and more – they will say, ‘‘No more. We need to rethink these entire policies.”

Bernie strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), saying, “Our free trade agreements have been a disaster. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is more of the same, but even worse.” The TPP also would have continued the shameful tradition of American economic policy turning a blind eye to human trafficking around the world. Bernie issued a 2017 statement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and joined the Day of Action Against Pacific Trade Pact in 2016.

He urged President Obama in a letter to cancel his meeting with Nike, a company that regularly exploits workers in underdeveloped countries.

Bernie acknowledges the importance of international trade and pushes for fair regulations that benefit all, but he has consistently opposed free trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP, which ship American jobs overseas to countries with no respect for workers’ rights. See our Trade issue page for more information.

Economic Inequality

The growing economic inequality in the U.S. has many causes, but of particular importance are an inefficient tax code that favor the extremely wealthy, repeated financial bailouts to large banks at taxpayers expense, and an electoral system that allows billions to be spent on lobbying and political campaigns. Bernie wants to reform each of these to curtail the overwhelming influence of large corporations and the ultra-wealthy, and to rebalance our economy so that hard-working Americans have a fair chance to not just earn a living, but to pursue their dreams.

So how do AAPIs fit into this?

There are about 20 million people in the very diverse AAPI population in the U.S. Overall AAPIs tend to have higher rates of education and income, however  many subpopulations (Burmese, Micronesian, Bangladeshi) have disproportionately high poverty rates compared to the national average.

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On average, Asian Americans have a high median household income at $81,000, compared to the national average of $58,000. However, median incomes range widely, from $39,000 for Burmese Americans to $110,000 for Indian Americans.

AAPI homeownership rate is 57 percent, compared to the national average of 64 percent.

There are several factors that make moving up the socioeconomic ladder difficult for many AAPIs. For one, 12% of the unauthorized (or undocumented) population in the U.S. are Asian Americans (see Immigration, below). Long-term unemployment is also a concern, especially with rising levels of student loan debt. Studies show that AAPI college graduates have higher unemployment rates than similarly educated whites. Of unemployed Asian Americans, nearly 41% were jobless for more than six months in 2013.

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So how is Bernie fighting to get AAPIs fair access to equal employment?

Bernie has promoted minority-owned businesses since 1998.  He recently proposing legislation to create 13 million new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and a jobs guarantee to anyone who wants one. Bernie is a cosponsor of the Equal Employment for All Act of 2015, which would prohibit employers from running credit checks on interviewees. This would allow more opportunities for AAPIs whose credit suffered due to unemployment. Bernie is also a strong supporter of unions and strengthening the labor movement which benefits AAPIs on many levels, including better hourly wages, health insurance, and pension plans for retirement

Education

We must provide a more accessible and comprehensive education system for students in every neighborhood, including those with large immigrant populations. Immigrant children who need language classes and counseling at school should have access to the services they need no matter what their residency status is. We must address the fact that while many AAPIs excel at college many subgroups are being left behind and not finishing high school. 

How are AAPIs doing in school as much as in the workplace, huh?

Overall, higher levels of educational attainment mask continuing disparities. Within subgroups, 10 out of 21 have lower levels of college degree attainment than the national average. And while many groups of AAPIs have access to good schools, other groups do not. 

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Bernie has introduced legislation to make public colleges tuition free. Bernie favors making college accessible to everyone and supports affirmative action policies that increase diversity on college campuses.

In 2008, Bernie voted for the Higher Education Opportunity Act that funds minority programs and research at colleges and universities with funding priority given to institutions that enroll at least 10% AAPI undergraduate students. 

Bernie was a cosponsor of the DREAM Act of 2009 which the President’s Advisory Committee on AAPI supported, stating:

According to a University of California report, Asian and Pacific Islander students make up approximately 40 percent of the total undocumented student population enrolled in the University of California system. Additionally, many undocumented Asian students are children of parents who have fled from war-torn countries.

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Pretty impressive. Does Bernie want to help AAPI students before college too?

Yes! Bernie is proposing a complete overhaul of the education system.  He has introduced the Thurgood Marshall Education plan for public education and wants to reinvest in public schools and teachers.  He is calling for rebuilding the nations infrastructure, especially crumbling and unsafe schools.

Bernie supports strengthening elementary and high school education programs such as the Secondary School Reentry Act of 2011 and the DIPLOMA Act of 2014, which focus on helping more students graduate. 

Immigration

We need to reform our immigration policy to bring unauthorized Americans out of oppression and create a clear pathway to citizenship.

Wait, I thought immigration was mostly a Latino issue?

By region of birth, immigrants from South and East Asia combined accounted for 27% of all immigrants to the U.S. in 2016.

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Actually, even though Asian American and Pacific Islanders are a smaller group than Hispanic Americans as a whole, there have been a larger number of Asian immigrants in recent years:

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How many AAPIs are undocumented?

Out of the approximately 20 million AAPIs residing in the U.S., an estimated 1.2 million are undocumented. Despite misconceptions, many arrive legally and become trapped in our broken immigration system.

What types of opportunities are limited for undocumented people, including AAPIs?

Being undocumented restricts the ability to attend college, travel, or even drive. What’s more, employers often threaten to report individuals with an unauthorized status if they complain about poor working conditions and low wages (e.g., restaurateurs and nail salon owners), leading to further alienation and isolation in sometimes dangerous work situations. This also has a negative impact on our economy by limiting our potential for an educated workforce and pressuring other businesses to cut corners and lower prices to remain competitive with businesses that exploit their workers. 

Wow, that does seem like a pretty pervasive problem. So how has Bernie helped AAPI immigration, specifically?

In 1992, Bernie voted in favor of the Chinese Student Protection Act which gave Chinese Nationals who were in the U.S. during the Tiananmen Square massacre the opportunity to apply for permanent residency. In 2004, Bernie cosponsored legislation to grant U.S. citizenship to people born in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, or Thailand between 1950 and 1982 who also had permanent residency and were fathered by a U.S. citizen.

Bernie has been active in addressing international relief needs as far back as high school: he ran for class president on a platform to raise scholarship money for Korean orphans who lost their parents during the Korean War. He lost that election but his idea was implemented anyway.

Okay, but our immigration system is still pretty messed up. How does Bernie plan to fix it moving forward?

Bernie has many concrete plans to reform immigration and improve existing immigration programs. He believes that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is a good first step. Nearly 55% of the youth applied out of the 1.2 million who immediately met the criteria. However, only 21% of the 71,000 eligible Asian youth have applied, so we still have a lot of work to do. Bernie also wants to add to DACA the parents of citizens, parents of legal permanent residents, and the parents of DREAMERs, too. This will unite families and help create better living situations.

Health & Human Services

We need to offer quality health and human services that are accessible to all.

Why do AAPIs need various ways to access these services?

There are many cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and even immigration barriers for AAPI individuals who require human services. These challenges may prevent them from getting financial, occupational, healthcare, or legal help, and often this significantly impacts their lives in vital ways. Bernie works toward providing better and more diverse access for AAPIs and others who may be more cautious or wary in seeking assistance.

One big challenge to navigating available services is communication – people should be able to access and understand government services that are offered to them. 1 in 5 AAPI households are linguistically isolated, where members of the households who are older than 14 speak English “less than very well”. This can be very difficult for the individuals but also for the children in those households.

In 2007, Bernie voted against legislation that would have declared English the official U.S. language. Bernie has always supported more accessible processes in voter registration and balloting procedures, and he voted for the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 which allowed voter registration at the DMV.

Knowing about finances is key to achieving economic security, but getting help with banking and financial issues and knowing who to trust is often tricky due to language barriers.

What about access to healthcare?

Similarly, linguistic barriers and not knowing where to get trustworthy information can also pose challenges in accessing healthcare for AAPIs. As a group overall, AAPIs are less likely to receive preventative care and cancer screenings. In this video Bernie discusses healthcare with AAPI community

Stresses and challenges in life can affect mental health. However, AAPIs often face cultural stigma when considering mental health treatment despite the fact that many have faced extreme challenges like immigrating from war-torn countries:

As a largely immigrant and refugee population, Asian Americans face economic and language barriers that prevent them from accessing health care and make them more vulnerable to advanced depression and other mental health disorders. Stress related to immigration and acculturation may also be a factor in developing depression.

In 2013, Bernie cosponsored the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2013, which aimed to finance linguistically-appropriate mental health programs in schools.

Bernie’s American Health Security Act of 2013 requires culturally and linguistically appropriate measures to be more inclusive and increase access. As part of the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, Bernie helped push for funding for the Asian American Health Coalition of Greater Houston. They received $650,000 in 2015.

For many years, Bernie has advocated for a single-payer healthcare system to provide health insurance to all Americans as a right. See more of Bernie’s plans for healthcare reform.