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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and

Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy

by Lora Jo Foo

2002 Ford Foundation

Part 1

Sections: 1 2 3 4






Part 1              Economic Justice

Chapter 1        Welfare Reform’s Impact on Asian American Women 

Chapter 2        The Trafficking of Asian Women 

Chapter 3        Asian American Garment Workers: Low Wages, Excessive Hours, and Crippling Injuries 

Chapter 4        Other Low-Wage Workers: High-Tech Sweatshops, Home Care Workers, and Domestic Workers   

Part 2              Health and Well-Being

Chapter 5        Health Care Needs of Asian American Women 

Chapter 6        Sexual and Reproductive Freedom for Asian American Women 

Chapter 7        Domestic Violence and Asian American Women 

Part 3              Special Focus

Chapter 8        Hmong Women in the US: Changing a Patriarchal Culture 

Chapter 9        Hawai’i–The Asian State 

Chapter 10      Asian American Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered Persons–Moving from Isolation to Visibility 

Appendix: List of Interviewees 

About the Author 



Fifty years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaring that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, including the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to be free from hunger; and the right to have clothing, housing, and medical services. Yet, these fundamental human rights of Asian American women are denied every day. For example, they are trafficked into the US for sexual or severe labor exploitation, they work excessively long hours and earn poverty level wages as garment and domestic workers, they are slowly poisoned in high-tech jobs and endure degrading treatment when they try to access the US immigration, welfare and health care systems. In addition, prevailing racist and sexist stereotypes create a perception of Asian American women as the “other” and, as a result, their lives and issues are practically invisible to mainstream America. The Ford Foundation commissioned Lora Jo Foo to assist it in learning about the social and economic justice agenda of Asian American women.1 Her report, Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy, illuminates the current situation of Asian American women in the United States.

This report builds on work done in 1997 and 1998 by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) to identify the issues facing Asian American women. NAPAWF held meetings with Asian American women in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, and Minneapolis, the results of which helped provide the framework for this report. The report “puts meat on the bones” of that framework, focusing on the two states with the largest Asian American populations, California and New York, and devoting special attention to the State of Hawai’i2, which has the highest percentage of Asian Americans, and to Minnesota, the state with the second largest number of Hmong Americans (after California). The first draft of this report was presented to a meeting convened by the Ford Foundation in June 2001 of longtime Asian American women activists from around the country who worked on the issues covered in this report. The final report incorporates their comments, critiques and invaluable contributions.

Only empowered Asian American women can make lasting changes in their communities and beyond. To achieve this, as the report shows, grassroots organizing and base-building efforts are crucial. An equally effective advocacy model has been the coalition work used by Asian American women. To build on what has been achieved, for Asian American women to move their social justice agenda and make the systemic changes needed to end the civil and human rights violations inflicted on them, a significant infusion of resources is needed to strengthen the capacity of the grassroots, base-building organizations and coalitions and to build regional and national infrastructure and institutions. The issues facing Asian American women are dire but the resources available to them are disproportionately low for the size of the population.

Although Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans (APA) are the fastest growing groups in the United States and significant numbers live well below poverty levels, very few resources are devoted to improving their situation. According to a study by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, while Asian Americans represent 4% of the US population, only 0.2% of foundation funds were given to organizations working specifically on Asian American and Pacific Islander concerns. Unable to access major sources of foundation funding, Asian American communities have the weakest national infrastructure and institutions, and smallest budgets compared to their counterparts in other communities of color. There are only two small national Asian American women’s advocacy organizations with paid staff3, two fledgling national women’s membership organizations without paid staff4, and five national Asian American organizations5 whose advocacy work, though not targeted at women’s issues, has had an impact on Asian American women.

Despite the paucity of funding, beginning in the late 1960’s, Asian American women organized against the civil and human rights violations inflicted against their sisters. Lacking strong national and women’s organizations, the advocacy on behalf of Asian American women, then and now, and as reflected in this report, tends to be at the local level and through nongender specific organizations. However, the impact of these efforts has gone beyond the local level because Asian American women have worked with or led multiethnic coalitions in both joint advocacy and organizing efforts.6 As this report explains, these groups have succeeded on many fronts including the legislative arena, in union organizing, and in consumer education campaigns, advocating for culturally and linguistically accessible services and breaking the silence on issues not previously considered appropriate for public discussion in many Asian communities.

Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy speaks to foundations and charitable organizations; local, state, and federal level policy makers; advocates for social justice; universities and scholars; and members of the public committed to strengthening democracy. I hope the courage and integrity with which Asian American women speak through Lora Jo Foo’s work on this report inspires and challenges institutions and individuals to join in this conversation and respond to this call to action.


Barbara Y. Phillips

Program Officer

Human Rights

Peace and Social Justice Program

The Ford Foundation


1  The issues facing Pacific Islander women are not covered in this report. Not having sufficient familiarity with the Pacific Islander communities, Ms. Foo felt she could not write about or do justice to their issues. A report on Pacific Island women is more appropriately written by a Pacific Islander woman.

2  State residents prefer this punctuation.

3  The Asian and Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Institute and the National Asian Women’s Health Organization.

4 The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the Asian Pacific, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Network.

5 The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, the National Korean American Services and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (AFL-CIO), and the Asian Pacific Islander Health Forum.

6  For instance, the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus led the successful statewide effort in the passage of the Sweatshop Accountability Bill, which will help women garment workers throughout California. The Caucus was also active in the effort to raise the minimum wage in California, which resulted in an increase in the federal minimum wage. For many years, the San Francisco-based Asian Women’s Shelter and other local shelters engaged in advocacy in California for culturally and linguistically accessible domestic violence services that also had national impact.


Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy is divided into three parts. Part One covers Economic Justice, Part Two covers Health and Well-being, and Part Three looks at specific Asian American communities that receive very little attention. Each chapter of “Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns, and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy” places the issues Asian American women face in the broader economic, legal, political, and/or historical contexts of American society and describes specifically how Asian American women are affected. With the exception of domestic violence and issues of lesbian women that affect Asian American women across the socio-economic spectrum, the human and civil rights violations identified in this report affect primarily Asian immigrant women at the bottom of the economic ladder where poverty rates can be as high as 63% and limited English proficiency (LEP) is over 70% in certain Southeast Asian communities.

The chapters make assessments of the advocacy needed to address the issues and provide background information about some of the organizations that do the work. The report focuses on the grassroots and coalition efforts that have been the mainstay of the activism of Asian American women. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for action.

Part One, Economic Justice, looks at the class, race, and gender dynamics that work together to depress the socio-economic status of Asian American women. Chapter One deals with the new Welfare Reform system that discriminates against and denies equal access to public benefits to Asian immigrant women and their families. Chapter Two discusses the human rights violations suffered by Asian women who are trafficked into the United States and subjected to severe labor and sexual exploitation. Chapters Three and Four examine the various industries where the majority of poor Asian American women work and how they are trapped in the lowest paying jobs, laboring excessively long hours, often in unsafe workplaces, facing discrimination, and with little to no opportunity to move up the ladder.

Part Two, Health and Well-Being, examines the particular health concerns of Asian American women. The US health care system is struggling to meet the needs of the US citizen population, the majority of whom speak English; the needs of Asian women are barely visible. There is very little data on the health status of Asian women, and health care providers are guided instead by stereotypes and assumptions that can lead to misdiagnosis or worse. Chapter Five looks at the health care disparities between Asian women and the general population and points to the urgent need to look at differences among Asian ethnic groups. Chapters Six and Seven address sexual and reproductive health and domestic violence; issues that have long been considered taboo subjects in Asian American communities. However, the consequences of silence around these issues can have fatal consequences and must be addressed.

Part Three, Special Focus, examines the needs of three particularly marginalized or invisible groups of Asian American women. These are Hmong women (Chapter Eight), Filipina and Native Hawai’ian women in Hawai’i (Chapter Nine) and lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LBT) Asian American women (Chapter Ten). Hmong American women are engaged in a powerful struggle to transform their patriarchal culture in a way that keeps the positive aspects but changes other aspects in order to fulfill the basic human right to be free from violence. Hawai’i has a predominantly Asian American population and the combination of race, class, and gender oppression play out very differently than it does on the mainland. Finally, Asian American LBTs experience multiple forms of oppression based on race, gender, and sexual orientation making them perhaps the most marginalized of Asian American women.

Paucity of Data on Asian America

Exacerbating the problems for Asian American women is the lack of data relating to their issues. According to Census 2000, there are about 11.9 million Asians/Asian Americans in the United States. Comprising only 4% of the US population, Asian Americans’ representation is “statistically insignificant” in most national studies, such as those on the impact of welfare reform, health, domestic violence, and low-wage workers. In certain key states such as California where 12% of the state’s population is Asian American and a large enough population set for regional studies, the invisibility and perceived sameness has meant that little funding has been available from government or foundations for community specific studies. The studies that do include Asian American women have a tendency to focus on selected ethnic groups and/or do not disaggregate the data for the over 40 distinct ethnic groups that make up the Asian American community in the United States. The gap in data or failure to disaggregate can have dire consequences when, for example, it “hides” evidence about the distinct health needs of particular groups or fails to show how the impact of policies and programs varies from one Asian American community to another. The author of this report made efforts to locate and review the relevant studies on Asian Americans. However, very little exists and in some places, the author was forced to make use of anecdotal information. Clearly, there needs to be an increase in research, data collection, and statistical analysis relating to the issues raised in this report.

History of Asians in America1

The Asian presence in North America predates the 13 colonies’ declaration of independence from Great Britain. The first Asians arrived in the Americas in the 1500’s; they were reportedly conscripted sailors, primarily from what is now the Philippines, who jumped ship to seek freedom. Asians did not begin arriving in large numbers until the mid 1800’s when the British ended the slave trade from Africa and started importing “coolies” from China and India to various parts of the Caribbean. Large numbers of Chinese laborers began arriving in the United States during the “Gold Rush” and during the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad. But anti-Chinese sentiments against the influx of Chinese during the recessions of that period led, in 1882, to Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first legislation passed on the basis of race and barred all Chinese from becoming US citizens.

Other nations filled the gap created by the ban on Chinese labor. Workers from Japan, India, the Philippines, and Korea began arriving in the late 1880’s. Most settled in the Western part of the United States with large concentrations of Japanese, as well as Koreans and Filipinos, in California and what is now the State of Hawai’i. By the turn of the century, several thousand Punjabi farmers were working on California farms. US colonization of the Philippines meant that Filipinos had the status of US nationals and were eligible for immigration to the US. However, this ended in 1934 when the Philippines was reclassified as a commonwealth which resulted in a change of status for Filipinos. They became aliens and hence, ineligible for citizenship. It is now well known that Japanese Americans were interned in camps during the xenophobic period of World War II.

By the early 1960’s, approximately 500,000 Asians lived in the United States. Large numbers began arriving after repeal of anti-Asian exclusion laws and the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act lifted quotas based on national origin. The effect was immediate: between 1960 and 1970, immigration from Asia rose to above 10% of total immigration. The first wave of immigrants from the 1965 Act included large numbers of professionals from South and Southeast Asia, leading publications such as The New York Times and U.S. News and World Report to contrast their skill level and work ethics with those of African Americans. This was the birth of the “model minority” myth that endures to this day.

The Vietnam War was a turning point for Asian America on many levels. Outraged by US action in Vietnam, Asian American students took part in antiwar protests. Influenced by parallel developments in the US civil rights movement, these students also highlighted the racist overtones in the news coverage of events in Southeast Asia. It was at this time that the term “Asian American,” created to replace the derogatory term “Oriental,” came into parlance. During the civil rights movement and upheavals of the 1960’s, Asian American women became politically active in large numbers. Second- and third- generation Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino women were involved in organizing against past and present injustices, indignities, and human rights violations against their communities and themselves. As a result of demands made during these strikes, the first Asian American Studies centers were established and Asian women’s courses taught at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

In the early 1970’s, large numbers of Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese, displaced by the ravages of the Indo-China wars, began arriving in the United States. They were accepted as “boat people” but dispersed throughout the country with the hopes that they would soon blend in and assimilate. This wave of immigration included large numbers of women and children. In addition, significant number of middle class persons from all over Asia began arriving in 1970’s with their working class counterparts arriving in large numbers in the 1980’s. Once settled, the family members of immigrants also made the move from Asia. In all, some 4.5 million Asian immigrated to the US between 1970 and 1990.

Demographic Overview 

Census 2000 reveals a nation in change and more diversified than 10 years earlier due in large part to immigration. From 1990 to 2000, the Asian American population increased by 52% from 6.6 million to 10 million, or 11.6 million when part-Asians are included. By comparison, the Hispanic population increased by 58% from 22 million to 35 million. Whites dropped from 76% in 1990 to 69% of the current total US population while Hispanics increased to 13% and Asians to 4% of the US population. (See Figure 1).

While the traditional entry points for Asians remain California where 36% and New York where 10% of the nation’s Asian Americans live, the number of Asians in states like Indiana, Arkansas, and South Dakota doubled between 1990 and 2000. Half of all Asian Americans still live in the Western Region and 75% live in 10 states. (See Table 1). Half of all Asian Americans live in just three states—California (4.2 million), New York (1.2 million), and Hawai’i (0.7 million). According to Census 2000, 872,777 Asians live in New York City, 407,444 in Los Angeles, and just over 250,000 in San Francisco, San Jose, and Honolulu.

In 2000, no racial or ethnic group is the majority in the State of California. (See Figure 2). Asians are now the third largest group, making up from 11% to 12% (when part-Asians are included) of the state’s population, with Hispanics at 32% and Whites at 47%. Asian Americans are a larger percentage of certain counties and cities, making up 31% of San Francisco, 25% of Santa Clara, and 20% of Alameda counties. In Southern California, Los Angeles and Orange counties are 12% and 14% Asian, respectively. Six California cities are now majority Asian—Monterey Park (61%), Cerritos (58.4%), Walnut (55.6%), Milpitas (52.4%), Daly City (51.5%), and Rowland Hills (50.3%). In New York, the changes were also dramatic. Asian Americans increased by 30% to 1 million, or to about 10% of New York State’s population. Asians are now 10% of New York City as well. For the first time, New York City’s White population make up less than half of the residents, between 45% and 47% of the city.

Census 2000 indicates that a wide gap remains between affluent Asians and those living in poverty. Though the Census Bureau has not released details, its March 1999 Current Population Reports states that while one-third of Asian families have incomes of $75,000 or more, one-fifth have incomes of less than $25,000. Asians are more likely than Whites to have earned a college degree and to have less than a ninth-grade education. Asian Americans occupy the extreme spectrums: from wealth to poverty, entrepreneurial success to marginal daily survival, advanced education to illiteracy. Research and data concerning Asian Americans often are not disaggregated for different subgroups. For example, Census 2000 reports an overall poverty rate of 10.7%, the lowest poverty rate the Census Bureau ever measured for Asian Americans when certain Asian ethnic subgroups have had poverty rates as high as 63%. The result is a picture that portrays Asian Americans as a “model minority” and hides the human and civil rights violations suffered by Asian American women at the bottom of the economic ladder.


1 This section draws on Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.


Barnes, Jessica S. and Claudette E. Bennett, The Asian Population: 2000, Census 2000 Brief, US Census Bureau, C2KBR/01-16, February 2002

Chronicle News Service, New York City’s Population Grows To 8 Million, Hispanics, African Americans in equal proportions, census says, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 2001

Fields, Robin, A Deepening Diversity, but a Growing Divide, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2001

Hong, Peter Y., Daniel Yi, Fastest Growth of Any Ethnic Group in State, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2001

Humes, Karen, and Jesse McKinnon, The Asian and Pacific Islander Population in the United States, Population Characteristics, US Census Bureau, March 1999 (issued September 2000)

Kim, Ryan, Census 2000, Who We Are, More Pacific Islanders Living In California Than in Hawai’i, San Francisco, Chronicle, March 31, 2001

La Ganga, Maria L., Shawn Hubler, California Grows to 33.9 Million, Reflecting Increased Diversity, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2001

Los Angeles Times, Census 2000 Website, reports/census/

Martelle, Scott, Phil Willon, Latinos and Asians Continue a Transformation, Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2001

Ness, Carol, and McCormick, Erin, Hispanics Now Make Up Third of Californians, San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2001

Ness, Carol, and Ryan Kim, Census Reveals Fast-Growing Diversity in U.S., San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 2001

New York Times on the Web,

Pimentel, Benjamin, Census 2000, Who We Are Area Grows More Diverse Census finds increase in Asians, Hispanics, San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2001

President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, January 2001, A People Looking Forward, Action for Access and Partnership In the 21st Century, Interim Report to the President and Nation


This book is the joint product of many minds, hands and hearts. It originated from the Human Rights Unit of the Peace and Social Justice Program of the Ford Foundation when Program Officer Barbara Phillips commissioned me to conduct research and write up my findings on the social and economic justice agendas of Asian American women. I was assisted in preparing this report by Yin Ling Leung who conducted the research, literature review, and interviews for Part 2, Health and Well-being, and provided the initial written drafts for those chapters. Yin also assisted in research and/or interviews for Part 3, Special Focus. I thank Laura Ho, friend and former colleague, who helped with the final editing on each of the sections, often with very little notice and demanding turnaround times.

The final report benefited from the comments and insights of a group of long-time Asian American activists who assembled for a consultation at the Ford Foundation in June 2001. They were: Jane Bai, Hae Jung Cho, Lisa Hasegawa, Lisa Ikemoto, Pacyinz Lyfoung, Becky Masaki, Trinity Ordona, Hina Shah, Peggy Saika, Xuan Nguyen Sutter, Doreena Wong, Jai Lee Wong and Ka YingYang.

Ford Foundation Deputy Directors Taryn Higashi and Urvashi Vaid attended the June 2001 meeting, a March 2002 briefing session and made helpful comments on the various chapters. Program Associate Que Dang also contributed at the June 2001 meeting. In addition, Alan Jenkins, Director of the Human Rights Unit and Natalia Kanem, Deputy, Office of the Vice President, gave valuable insight on the overall report. Many thanks to Dayna Bealy, Elizabeth Coleman, Mary Loftus and Laura Walworth, all of the Ford Foundation Department of Communications, for enabling this book to be produced, designed, illustrated and distributed. Designer, Ifaat Qureshi captured the spirit of “Asian women in action” in her original design for this report. Jeremy Fenn-Smith and Heather Moss were instrumental in keeping the numerous and scattered parties in touch throughout the process. Thanks to Linda Hsia Elmstrom, Copy Editor, for her hard work. My special thanks go to Mehlika Hoodbhoy, Editor and Publication Coordinator, whose editorial work was invaluable in fine tuning and strengthening the report and shaping the book into a useful advocacy tool. Mehlika’s energy and hard work in seeing the report through to final publication is much appreciated.

Lora Jo Foo


Part 1

Economic Justice

Part 1, Chapter 1

Welfare Reform’s Impact on
Asian American Women

An Attack On Immigrant Women and Women With Children

At age 49, Mai lives with her 58-year-old husband and four children in a crowded apartment in San Jose, California. She is the sole breadwinner, as her husband is disabled from arthritis compounded by the beatings he received in a Vietnamese concentration camp. Her job assembling electronics parts only yields about $200 per month on piece rates. Over half of Mai’s income goes to pay the rent. To supplement her wages, Mai must rely on food stamps, Medi-Cal, cash assistance, and, as a last resort, a local church for free food. Mai wants a higher paying job, but she cannot read or write English and she has received only a few months of job training, ESL classes and job search assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Mai says, “The five-year TANF limit is very rough. We’ve only been here a bit more than two years, and our lives are not stable. The fifth year will come and I’m afraid we won’t be ready.”1

As enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have clothing, housing and medical services. In passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of August 22, 1996 (hereinafter welfare reform), the US violated these fundamental human rights. Paraphrasing Franklin D. Roosevelt, necessitous women are not free because “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Welfare reform’s most vicious effects were on immigrant women, who suffer twofold. First, welfare reform ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), an entitlement program primarily for single mothers, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which limits assistance to a total of five years in a woman’s lifetime.2 Second, welfare reform excluded all immigrants from the right to receive federally funded food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the elderly, disabled and blind and left it within a state’s discretion whether to provide TANF and Medicaid to immigrants. Immigrants bore the brunt of welfare reform-the cuts to immigrants amounted to 40% of the savings in federal public assistance spending-even though contrary to popular misperceptions, immigrants were not heavy users of welfare.3

The burden of the cuts fall disproportionately on immigrant women as they are the ones most likely to need welfare assistance. As Table 2 shows, in Los Angeles County, 80% of Korean, 79% of Cambodians, 69% of Chinese, and 69% of Vietnamese adults who receive TANF are women and as Table 3 shows, 60% of SSI, 59% of food stamp and 61% of Medicaid recipients are women. Asian Americans over 65, who utilize public assistance at high rates, are particularly vulnerable.4 Among Asian groups, Southeast Asian immigrants have been hardest hit by welfare reform because they suffer the highest poverty rates of all communities of color, including African Americans and Latinos.5

Impact On Asian American Women

TANF Programs-Rights and Responsibilities

Welfare reform provided block grants for states to implement TANF programs. For the first time states were given the discretion to determine whether and which legal immigrants should receive public benefits. Faced with the possibility of increased homelessness, hunger, and emergency medical costs, every state except Alabama opted to maintain TANF benefits and every state except Wyoming opted to maintain Medicaid at least for immigrants who were in the US prior to welfare reform’s passage on August 22, 1996. Of the 10 states with the largest number of Asian immigrants, all opted to provide TANF and Medicaid to pre-enactment immigrants.

In addition to the five-year lifetime cap on benefits, welfare recipients are also required to find employment within two years or lose their benefits. During the two years, a recipient must agree to a welfare-to-work plan, conduct a job search and engage in a work activity, such as unsubsidized employment, job training (limited to one year), education, or work for her welfare check. Failure to engage in work activity can result in the loss of welfare benefits. Certain states, such as California, require welfare offices to provide welfare-to-work services to help recipients develop necessary job skills before their lifetime limit on assistance expires. Other states, including New York, have no such mandate and actively push women off welfare without any job training.

Pushed Off Welfare and into Poverty Jobs

When the AFDC was eliminated and replaced by TANF, all women with children lost a safety net that existed for 60 years. Across the country, county-level welfare offices have not addressed the barriers Asian immigrant women face when they try to attain financial self-sufficiency-i.e., their limited-English proficiency and lack of job skills. Moreover, Asian immigrant women encounter discrimination and other hardships that often result in denial of equal access to TANF benefits and services.

1. Denial of Access to Written Materials and Interpreters

On August 23, 2000, 50 young Vietnamese and Cambodian men and women from the Bronx held a rally to protest the lack of translators at welfare offices. Nine-year-old Maryanne Heam told the rally that she was tired of missing school to serve as a welfare interpreter. She did not speak much Cambodian and found it hard to translate for her mother. The demonstrators moved to a welfare office and demanded a meeting with officials. They got a pledge that welfare offices will stop using children to interpret, and at the very least provide an interpreter by phone.6

California, New York, and other state laws require that limited-English proficient (LEP) applicants and recipients be provided with written translations and interpreters to enable them to effectively communicate with caseworkers. Federal law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, provides that no person shall be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to race, color, or national origin discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.7 Despite these laws, states routinely fail to provide language appropriate services to immigrants, thereby illegally denying them equal access to TANF benefits and services.

In New York City, 15,000 to 25,000 Southeast Asians, primarily from Vietnam and Cambodia, live in the Bronx. A summer 2000 survey of 100 Southeast Asian adults and 96 youth in the Bronx conducted by the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) found that not one welfare center in the Bronx had Khmer or Vietnamese speaking translators even though 65% of the Southeast Asian population in the Bronx is on welfare. None of the adults surveyed were aware that the welfare centers were required by law to provide translation services. Although the city claims phone interpreters are available, 93% of the adults surveyed had never worked with a caseworker who made use of a phone interpreter. The children of Southeast Asian welfare recipients often find themselves translating for their parents at welfare centers. Of the youth surveyed, ranging from nine to twenty-one years old, 86% had missed school to translate for their parents. Most are not fluent in their parents’ native tongues and report feeling uncomfortable translating but do so nonetheless in attempt to preserve their families’ welfare benefits.

In Los Angeles County, 41% or about 94,000 welfare recipients speak languages other than English, including Armenian, Cambodian, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Yet Los Angeles County routinely fails to provide written or verbal translations. In a class action complaint filed in December 1999 with the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by Asian and Latina TANF recipients and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), plaintiffs allege that the county fails to provide, in the immigrant’s primary language, forms and program information, notice of mandatory appointments and notices of actions such as termination of aid, sanctions, approval or denial of various supportive services, appeal rights, and the right to participate in corrective action plans. Without their knowing why and what to do about it, women are denied the services they need to overcome barriers to employment, sanctioned, and dropped from welfare.

A 1999 Wisconsin study found that close to 70% of Hmong were unable to communicate verbally with their caseworker. Close to 90% couldn’t read the materials they received from the W-2 agency, Wisconsin’s TANF program. An Illinois study focusing exclusively on refugee women on welfare, including Vietnamese women, found that 83% do not speak English well or at all. While 81% had taken English classes, 74% still required translation assistance. A January 2001 Applied Research Center national study found that in New York City, problems were most pronounced for speakers of Asian languages. 84% of Southeast Asians did not have access to translation when needed, compared with 50% of Latinos.

Deprived of the right to interpreters, immigrants face personal indignities and financial penalties. Immigrants who are forced to rely on their children or complete strangers risk harming the parent/child relationship or embarrassment as their private lives are revealed to their children or a complete stranger. Financially, sanctions were imposed and benefits reduced for 48% of New York Southeast Asians surveyed by CAAAV, forcing many to spend rent money on food and finding themselves in debt or at the risk of eviction. The APALC complaint alleges that in Los Angeles County, over 500 LEP households have had their benefits terminated during the time English-only notices were used. A 2000 federal investigation of Wisconsin’s W-2 program found that one third of Hmong welfare recipients lost or were denied benefits because the state failed to provide interpreters or translate documents.

2. Denial of Access to Job Training and Educational Opportunities

TANF provided $3 billion to states over two years to pay for employment related activities aimed largely at individuals with significant barriers to work. For most Asian immigrant women, language is a daunting barrier between welfare and work. Yet, instead of using these resources to address the language barriers that keep immigrant women in poverty, states deny immigrant women equal access to vocational education and job training by offering classes only in English, failing to provide ESL classes and basic adult education, and steering them into Workfare programs (where one works for her welfare check), which tend to consist only of menial, dead-end jobs.

New York City’s treatment of LEP recipients is perhaps the most egregious.8 New York offers three ways for welfare recipients who cannot find unsubsidized employment to fulfill their work activities requirements: educational programs, job training, and Workfare. In the CAAAV survey, all 100 Southeast Asians surveyed were given only one option-Workfare. Not one survey participant was offered a job training or educational program, and 81% stated caseworkers never even informed them of the job training option. As part of Workfare, they cleaned parks or streets without proper equipment and picked up trash with bare hands and unmasked faces. Because of language barriers, none of the survey participants could speak to their Workfare supervisors and Workfare never provided ESL training. Vocational ESL classes do not exist for Khmer or Vietnamese speaking recipients. Over the last three years, only one person in the thousands of Southeast Asians living in the Bronx known to CAAAV has gotten a paid job after the Workfare program. As they waste their days in Workfare without learning jobs skills, the five-year time limit on receipt of TANF benefits ticks away.

Asian Americans in other states fare a little better, but not much. In the Wisconsin survey, 48% of Hmong report lack of job skills and 40% say language barriers prevented them from working. Nine out of 10 Hmong were placed in Workfare and of these two-thirds were assigned to light assembly and cleaning jobs with little to no opportunity for skill development. Of the 137 Hmong interviewed, only 13 received job training as part of Workfare and only seven were taking ESL courses. The Applied Research Center’s survey found that Asians were the least likely to be given job training. Only 28% of white respondents were enrolled in Workfare programs, compared to 33% of African Americans, 37% of Latinos, and 47% of Asians.

Los Angeles County, using the Work First policy, steers Asian immigrant women into jobs where earnings are below the federal poverty level. Under the Work First policy (which exists in almost every state), welfare recipients are pushed to find a job, any job, within four weeks of starting the welfare-to-work process. The Work First policy leaves immigrant women in low-wage jobs with few options for job advancement in the long-run.

3. Stuck in Dead-end Below Poverty Wage Jobs

Denied welfare-to-work services, Asian immigrant women often remain on welfare longer than English-speaking welfare recipients. In California, for example, English speakers are leaving welfare at a faster rate, dropping 14% from 1998-99, compared with 8% for LEPs. Caseworkers are able to find work for only one-fifth of welfare recipients who speak limited-English, compared with about 60% of those who speak fluent English. Consequently, the proportion of LEP immigrants on TANF has increased while that of English speakers has decreased.

A 2000 Economic Roundtable study found that Southeast Asian women welfare workers fare worst of all welfare workers. For them, 63.8% earned below poverty wages as compared with 54.2% of Latinas and 53.3% of African American women. Southeast Asian women welfare workers have the highest poverty rate, at 97.2%, compared to Latinas at 88.8% and African American women at 81.6%. Southeast Asian women tend to have limited educational attainment in their home country and limited-English language ability. Higher levels of education, English-language ability, and US citizenship were strongly associated with greater job stability and earnings 54% higher than LEPs.

Eighty-five percent of Asian immigrant women on welfare work in low-wage industries. The niche industries for Southeast Asian women are non-durable manufacturing (41%), primarily apparel jobs, where earnings are 40% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL); 18% in other services earning 44% of the FPL; and 10% in administrative positions earning 49% of the FPL. Recent immigrants end up in low-wage jobs without health benefits, not even earning minimum wage, because their limited English is not a barrier to working these jobs. As a result, 64% of Southeast Asians are concentrated in a few low-wage niche industries compared to 38% of Latino immigrants.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the country. Without job training, ESL, and vocational ESL classes, Asian immigrant women will be tracked into minimum wage or below jobs that lack health benefits. When they reach their lifetime cap in 2002, working full time at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour or less, Asian immigrant women will have to work the equivalent of 60 to 80 hour weeks or two or three jobs just to move out of poverty.


Hungrier and Sicker Immigrant Women and Children

1. Declining Use of Food Stamps

Hunger has become a significant problem for Asian immigrants. An August 2000 survey by Physicians for Human Rights examined the impact of food stamp cuts on Asian and Latino immigrants in California, Illinois, and Texas and found that 87% of the legal immigrant households living in poverty were food insecure–seven times the rate in the general population.9 10% suffered from severe hunger, more than 10 times the rate of the general population. To pay rent and avoid having utilities turned off, the majority of adult immigrants surveyed ate only twice a day, making sure their children ate something, even if it was peanut butter on old bread or tortillas and beans. Even short-term periods of malnutrition can permanently affect a child’s behavior, cognitive development, and future productivity. Food insecure pregnant women face high risks of low birth-weight infants and higher infant mortality rates.

Hunger and illness are rising in immigrant communities, not just because welfare reform excluded large segments of the immigrant population from eligibility but also because of the barriers to access that welfare reform and government officials created for those who remained eligible. Despite the fact that citizen children remained eligible for public benefits after welfare reform, an alarming number dropped out of the food stamp program. In the CAAAV survey of Southeast Asians living in the Bronx, welfare centers were removing not only immigrant adults from the food stamps program but also their citizen children. Of those surveyed, 52% percent did not receive food stamps on a consistent basis. In its 2000 study, the National Immigrant Rights Coalition estimated that by 1998, 75% of citizen children in immigrant headed households had dropped off the program compared to only 11% of children in non-immigrant households. In Los Angeles County, an estimated 100,000 eligible Asian Americans are without food stamps.

2. Declining Use of Medicaid

Medicaid use also has declined significantly among eligible immigrants. Immigrants are concentrated in industries that traditionally do not provide health insurance (e.g., agriculture, garment, and private households). Thus, a higher percentage of immigrants (43%) are uninsured as compared to US born workers (16%). While there are no numbers on Asian Americans, according to the Latino Issues Forum, 70% or 420,000 California children eligible for Medicaid who live in families with immigrant parents are uninsured. The New York Immigrant Coalition estimates that 34,000 New York immigrants who were eligible in 2000 did not apply for Medicaid because of fear of the INS or confusion over eligibility. The health of immigrants has been harmed by the decrease in Medicaid coverage. Anecdotal evidence from doctors suggests that immigrants are generally sicker or in need of emergency care when they finally see a doctor.

3. Uneven Restoration of Benefits

In 1997, when the first notices advising of SSI cut-offs were sent, a number of desperate elderly immigrants in California, New York, and Wisconsin committed suicide. These tragedies along with intense pressure by advocates led to Congress restoring benefits to some 500,000 immigrants who were already receiving those benefits as of August 22, 1996, and food stamps to immigrants under the age of 18, those 65 years or older on August 22, 1996, and those receiving disability assistance. Congress divided immigrants between those who were in the US prior to passage of welfare reform on August 22, 1996 (pre-enactment immigrants) and those who entered after that date (post-enactment immigrants). Most pre-enactment working age immigrant adults remained ineligible for food stamps. Most post-enactment immigrants were excluded from eligibility for SSI and food stamps until they have met the five-year residency requirement.10 Since every year about 900,000 legal immigrants enter the US to join their families, the number excluded from federal public benefits continues to grow.

To replace the federally funded benefits that were cut, over half the states provide at least one of four key substitute programs to immigrants: TANF and Medicaid to post-enactment immigrants and food stamps and SSI to pre- and/or post-enactment immigrants. Only California opted to provide all four state-funded substitute programs. New York opted to provide only food stamps and only to pre-enactment children, elderly, and the disabled. As Table 4 shows, the safety net varies greatly state by state. Immigrants in many states have fallen through the cracks in the patchwork where neither federal nor state benefits are available to them.11

Chilling Effects on Immigrant Parents and Their Citizen Children

A number of factors prevent eligible Asian immigrant women from applying for benefits, even when they are ill or their children are hungry. In an August 2000 study by APALC on use of food stamps, organizations serving the Asian American community in Southern California identified the top barriers to benefits participation by the Asian immigrant community, including mistrust and fear of government, fear that using public benefits would make one an undesirable public charge, confusion about which immigrants are eligible for which programs, and language barriers. Other barriers include the hostility of state and county government and caseworkers toward immigrants and intimidating government tactics that discourage immigrants from applying for benefits.

1. Oppressive Government Tactics

From 1994-99, the State of California funded a program at border points and airports to “catch” immigrant women who used prenatal care provided by Medicaid. Latina women were detained at the Mexican border by state and INS agents. At the San Francisco and Los Angeles airports, 50% of those detained were Asian women, 25% were Latina, and 25% were of other nationalities. State and INS officials specifically targeted women of childbearing age on flights from Asia and Mexico. Under questioning, if a woman indicated she had recently given birth and received public assistance at that time, the INS agent on the spot decided whether she was a public charge and whether or not she received the assistance fraudulently. The state agent calculated how much she received. Women were intimidated into repaying the Medicaid benefits they received, even if they obtained the benefits legally, by the threat of imprisonment, deportation, or reduced chances for obtaining green cards or citizenship. In this way, California illegally collected $3.8 million from approximately 1,500 Asian and Latina women.12

2. The “Public Charge” Label

If the INS considers a person likely to be public charge, i.e. someone who either has become or has the possibility of becoming dependent on government benefits, it can deny an immigrant’s application for a green card, refuse immigrants reentry into the US, or deport the person. Being considered a public charge by the INS is among the top barriers to immigrant women applying for public assistance. In May 1999, the INS issued guidelines making it clear that use of food stamps, nutritional assistance, Medicaid, and school lunches would not make an immigrant a public charge. Nonetheless, thousands of Asian immigrant women will not apply for food stamps and Medicaid. More than a year after the INS guidelines were issued, most Los Angeles area Asian American service providers surveyed in the APALC study stated they were reluctant to give assurances to immigrant women because they themselves were skeptical of the INS guidelines. The health consequences to women and their children who do not have Medicaid are already becoming manifest. The National Immigrant Law Center recently reported that infant mortality rates are climbing in immigrant communities such as New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, and in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

3. Mandatory Reporting

Welfare reform requires that state agencies administering TANF, SSI, and food stamps programs report to the INS any person the agency knows is not legally in the US and allows voluntary reporting of any immigrant, even if she is here legally. The INS has not made it clear that reporting requirements apply to the individual seeking assistance and not to the whole family. State agencies ask about the immigration status of all family members. The vast majority, 85%, of immigrant families (those headed by a non-citizen parent) are “mixed status” families that include at least one US citizen and may include undocumented family members. Fear of exposing undocumented family members to the INS is the primary reason that immigrant women, Asian and Latino, do not apply for Medicaid or Food Stamps even if they are pregnant or have US citizen children. 77% of the children in mixed status families are US citizens and eligible for all forms of public assistance. It is pure fear that prevents a very large number of citizen children from receiving food stamps or health coverage.




4. Sponsor Deeming

Under welfare reform, to determine an immigrant’s eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, and SSI, a state agency may count the income of the family member who sponsored the immigrant to the US as part of the immigrant’s income. In other words, the sponsor’s income is deemed the applicant’s income, usually resulting in a combined income that exceeds eligibility levels. If sponsors’ incomes are low enough for applicants to be eligible for public assistance, the sponsors are financially liable for reimbursing Medicaid used (except for emergency services) and food stamps. In order not to expose their sponsors to financial liability, immigrants often do not apply for benefits.

5. Caseworkers and Immigrant Eligibility

Asian immigrants are unsure about their eligibility status and many of their caseworkers are also confused. Myriad types of immigrant categories were created by welfare reform (such as pre- and post-enactment, qualified and non-qualified, refugees, veterans, children, elderly, and disabled) and each group qualifies for different sets of benefits. Often, caseworkers assume that ineligibility for one type of benefit means ineligibility for all types of assistance and some have refused to accept benefits applications from immigrants.

6. Hostile Caseworkers

Immigrants face open hostility from many caseworkers, which often delays the receipt of benefits and sometimes create insurmountable barriers to applying for or receiving benefits. For example, an undocumented, pregnant, and battered Vietnamese woman applied for Medicaid for her US-citizen child. Her caseworker told her, “You have no right to be having children here” and threatened to phone the INS. The woman left the office without receiving any benefits. A Milwaukee widow was told that her benefits arrived only sporadically “because you’re Hmong.” An Oakland, California, woman reported that a caseworker had torn her application form up in front of her because she could not understand the caseworker’s English.

7. Language Barriers

Across the country, the lack of translated materials and interpreter services exacerbates the rampant confusion over immigrant eligibility, public charge, and mandatory reporting concerns. Asian immigrants who do manage to get approved for benefits often get cut off or have benefits reduced when they receive but cannot read or respond to English-only notices.

Advocacy Needed

Advocacy must occur on two fronts. The first is the fight for TANF reauthorization. Unless Congress reauthorizes funding, funds for TANF and the food stamps programs will run out in September 2002. The second need is for on-going local and state advocacy to expand state substitute programs to immigrants ineligible for federal benefits and ensure that Asian immigrant women have equal access to existing TANF benefits and welfare-to-work services.

The Reauthorization Fight

In the reauthorization process, no one seriously thinks that they can succeed in restoring the old system of entitlement to welfare for families with children. However, the reauthorization debates may be an opportunity for advocates to “fix” welfare reform by restoring benefits to all immigrants and addressing the barriers to women moving from welfare to work. Other “fixes” include eliminating Work First and expanding the list of qualifying work activities to include ESL classes, removing barriers to immigrants use of public benefits, extending time limits for difficult-to-place clients, and creating safety nets for those who simply cannot learn English or job skills necessary to move from welfare to work. Given the recent capture of the White House and both houses of Congress by the Republicans, fixing welfare reform will be even more difficult.

An early indication of the conservative agenda came in February 2001 at a “New World of Welfare” conference consisting of Washington DC, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and individuals such as Charles Murray, author of the Bell Curve, who put forth their reauthorization agenda: cutting off welfare to unwed mothers, protecting Work First, full family sanctions, and keeping the time limits firm. The liberals were invited to debate the conservatives. The Center on Law and Social Policy and the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, didn’t disagree that the premise of TANF was good, but only sought a softer approach, such as liberalizing time limits and seeking less punitive sanctions. The issue of language barriers to access was not on the agenda. Grassroots and civil rights organizations were shut out from speaking at this conference.

Ensuring Equal Access to TANF, Food Stamps, and Medicaid

Ongoing advocacy must continue to ensure Asian immigrant women have equal access to TANF and other public benefits. Class actions, in court and before HHS, have been filed in New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and the San Francisco Bay Area. These actions claim that the failure to provide written translations and interpreters amounts to a denial of equal access to benefits to LEP immigrants and national origin discrimination. Most of these class actions have not been resolved. For immigrant women who were denied welfare-to-work services, their 60-month lifetime cap must be extended until they have received appropriate job training or ESL classes. To assuage eligible immigrants of their distrust of government and encourage use of food stamps and Medicaid programs, the INS must be pressured to issue clearer guidelines. Caseworkers must be trained about immigrant eligibility rules so that immigrants are not wrongfully denied benefits. Immigrants need to know their eligibility rights and how to take action against illegal caseworker actions. Advocacy and litigation groups need to be funded to monitor and identify abuses, to take complaints from immigrants and to counter systemic abuses.

The Organizations

Coalition Work

Coalitions of civil rights, welfare rights, and women’s and labor organizations must be forged to engage in the reauthorization debates. Such coalitions failed to form in 1996. Aside from Asian American organizations, most national civil rights groups failed to throw their full weight into fighting welfare reform. Instead of opposing welfare reform in its entirety, the D.C. beltway feminist organizations identified battered women as the most deserving for public assistance and lobbied for the Family Violence Option to TANF. Patsy Mink (D-HI), author of the liberal alternative to welfare reform, was disappointed in the national feminist organizations. “If they had raised the feminist issue,” she says, “it might have made a big difference.” Different welfare constituents fought to protect their share of the pie. Asian American civil rights groups did not find allies in the general welfare rights movement. Equal access to public benefits for immigrants became the sacrificial lamb.

In 1995 and 1996, the Asian American civil rights organizations-National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC) and its three affiliates, the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus (ALC), Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC), and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in New York, and the newly formed National Korean American Services and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) organized early, mobilizing their constituents and lobbied intensely against the exclusion of immigrants from TANF, food stamps, and SSI. All these organizations engaged in the fight to restore food stamps and SSI. However, until Congress puts reauthorization on its agenda, most of the Asian American organizations will not regroup for the fight.

In 2002, given the large impact on their communities, Southeast Asian American organizations are leading the struggle to fix welfare reform. The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in coalition with the Hmong National Development (HND) and support from the NAPALC began intensive legislative advocacy, in particular, for restoration of TANF to all immigrants and more flexible rules to allow states to count ESL and other education classes as work and lengthen the allowable time spent in education while women are receiving TANF benefits.

Grassroots Organizing

Public benefits programs are administered on the local level. States and counties adopt their own regulations. The ongoing work of ensuring equal access must take place on a state-by-state and county-by-county basis, which makes advocacy more difficult. Added to this difficulty is the paucity of Asian American organizations that do this work in a consistent manner. Only the New York-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) has a comprehensive ongoing welfare rights program that engages in grassroots organizing, advocacy, and direct services to Southeast Asian welfare recipients. Most of the Asian American civil rights organizations do not have welfare rights projects and took up the welfare reform and restoration fight because of its broad attacks on immigrants. The Los Angeles-based APALC continued some welfare rights advocacy after the restoration of food stamps and SSI, moving from eligibility issues to access issues. It filed the class action complaint challenging Los Angeles County’s denial of equal access to TANF benefits and services to LEP immigrants, issued the Barriers to Food Stamps report, and as part of the reauthorization process, is conducting a survey of 15 CBOs who serve TANF recipients to determine the advocacy that will be needed. Primarily, Asians benefit from the language access advocacy of the broader immigrant rights or legal services coalitions such as the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative (which APALC helped form and is a part of), the New York Immigration Coalition, and ad hoc legal services coalitions such as one led by the Oakland-based Center on Poverty Law and Economic Opportunity (CPLEO). 

Recommendations for Action

·         On the federal level, engage in legislative advocacy for the reauthorization of TANF and food stamps funding when it ends in September 2002. “Fix” welfare reform by restoring benefits to immigrants that they were entitled to before. Address the barriers to Asian immigrant women moving from welfare to work.

·         Provide, at the state level, permanent substitute programs for immigrants no longer eligible for federally funded programs.

·         Study the impact of welfare reform on Asian American communities.

·         Ensure that Asian immigrant women have equal access to TANF and other public benefits.

·         Bring class actions litigation and apply pressure on counties to challenge their failure to provide written translations, interpreters, job training, vocational ESL and ESL classes to Asian immigrant women. Engage in outreach to the affected Asian American women.

·         Pressure the INS to issue clearer guidelines to end the chilling effects of mandatory reporting.

·         Train caseworkers to understand eligibility rules so immigrants are not wrongfully denied benefits. Translate eligibility rules into several Asian languages and distribute them widely.

·         Help immigrants understand their rights and how to exercise them vis-ŕ-vis caseworkers. Provide advocacy and litigation groups with the resources to receive complaints from immigrants and monitor and take action against illegal caseworker practices.


1 From War on Poverty to War on Welfare: The Impact of Welfare Reform on the Lives of Immigrant Women, Equal Rights Advocates, April 1999.

2 TANF programs differ in the 50 states. Only 27 states and the District of Columbia provide the full five years lifetime limit. The average for all states is just 46 months. Only half the states provide TANF benefits to post-enactment immigrants. Not all states adopted the Family Violence Option. In determining eligibility, Hawai’i disregards 50% of earnings of a full-time, minimum wage earner. In Wisconsin, a recipient remains eligible for TANF until her income is more than three times the amount of the TANF grant. But in Alameda County, California, a woman is jailed for fraudulent receipt of welfare if she earns even a small amount from working. Across the Bay in Marin County, no welfare recipient has been jailed for the same “offense.”

3 In 1998, while 22% of immigrants lived in poverty as compared to 13% of the general US population, only 5% of working age immigrants (other than refugees) received welfare-equivalent to usage by US born citizens.

4 Public assistance rates for persons over 65 were 67% for Hmong, 57.8% for Laotian, 53.2% for Cambodians, 51.1% for Vietnamese, 42.1% of Koreans, 37.5% for Thai, 29.3% for Filipino, 28.4% for South Asians, and 25.9% for Chinese.

5 In California, 63% of Hmong, 51% of Laotians, and 47% of Cambodians live in poverty.

6 Greg Wilson, Translation needs voiced, Daily News, August 23, 2000.

7 In August 2000, then-President Clinton issued an Executive Order requiring welfare agencies receiving federal funds to ensure that LEP recipients have meaningful access to programs and activities that are normally provided in English. As of March 2001, newly elected President

Bush put the executive order on hold and he and Congress were considering whether to reverse

Clinton’s mandate.

8 As of 2001, New York State had not spent $1.1 billion in federal welfare funds and had instead diverted those moneys to pay for tax cuts. Los Angeles County had approximately $400 million in unspent TANF funds.

9 Food insecure is defined as having limited or uncertain access to enough safe, nutritious food for an active and healthy life.

10 SSI was also restored to pre-and post-enactment immigrants who are veterans and refugees, to pre-enactment immigrants who have worked 10 years or become citizens, and post-enactment immigrants in the US for five years and who have worked 10 years. Food stamps were also restored to pre-enactment immigrants who are veterans, refugees, and members of Hmong and Laotians tribes militarily assisting the US during the Vietnam War but otherwise denied to most post-enactment immigrants for five years after entry. The veterans and 10-year work exceptions are biased against immigrant women, since most women are unlikely to have served in the armed forces. Asian immigrant women may find it difficult to meet the 10-year work requirement as so many work in the “informal economy” of sweatshops or as domestic workers where pay may be cash under the table or Social Security taxes are not paid on their behalf. 

11 New York does not provide Medicaid to post-enactment immigrants and as a result, an estimated 52,000 of them currently living in poverty are not receiving Medicaid benefits. By the year 2005, 109,000 legal immigrants will not receive Medicaid benefits. The restoration of food stamps in 1998 still left over 600,000 ineligible immigrants for which some states, but not all, provided substitute benefits. In New York City, 53,500 legal immigrants remain ineligible for food stamps.

12 The program was challenged in court and settlements were reached that required the state to return the moneys unlawfully collected by the state. In April 1999, the state legislature defunded the program.


Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Barriers to Food Stamps for the Asian

and Pacific Islander Community in Los Angeles County, Preliminary Report, Aug. 31, 2000

Associated Press, Bush may reverse Clinton order on making agencies bilingual, San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 2001

Center for Third World Organizing, Highlights from GROWL’s Hear Our Voices Week of Action, March 2001

Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, Eating Welfare, A Youth Conducted Report on the impact of Welfare on the Southeast Asian Community, report by the Southeast Asian Youth Leadership Project of the Summer 2000

Drayse, Mark, Flaming, Daniel and Force, Peter, The Cage of Poverty, Economic Roundtable, On the Edge: A Progress Report on Welfare to Work in Los Angeles

Sept. 2000

Economic Roundtable, On the Edge: A Progress Report on Welfare to Work in Los Angeles (date unknown)

Equal Rights Advocates, War on Poverty to War on Welfare: The Impact of Welfare Reform on the Lives of Immigrant Women, April 1999

Fremstad, Shawn, et al., Overcoming Barriers to Providing Health and Social Services to Immigrant Families, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

March 2000

Fujiwara, Lynn, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Asian Immigrant Communities, Social Justice, V. 25, Spring 1998:82

Gaytan, Celia, and Hernandez, Jose Atillo, Beyond the Culture of Fear: How Welfare Reform has Failed Immigrants and Public Health in California, Latino Issues Forum, Jan. 1999

Greenberg, Mark, Laracy, Michael C., Welfare Reform: Next Steps Offer New Opportunities, A Role for Philanthropy in Preparing for the Reauthorization of TANF in 2002, Neighborhood Funders Group, May 2000

The Illinois Refugee Social Services Consortium and the Women’s Bureau, DOL, Moving from Welfare to Work: The Experience of Refugee Women in Illinois,

The Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Wisconsin’s Hmong Aid Recipients, Dec. 1999

Jang, Deeana, and Penserga, Luella, Beyond the Safety Net, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (no date)

National Immigrant Law Center, Immigrant Privacy Concerns Under Welfare Reform: The Need for Federal Guidance on “The Communications Provisions,” Sept. 2000

New York City Welfare Reform and Human Rights Documentation Project, Hunger Is No Accident, New York and Federal Welfare Policies Violate the Human Right to Food, July 2000

New York Immigrant Coalition, Welfare Reform and Health Care: The Wrong Prescription for Immigrants, Nov. 2000

Park, Lisa Sun-Hee, et al., Impact of Recent Welfare and Immigration Reform on Use of Medicaid for Prenatal Care on Immigrants in California, Journal of Immigrant Health, Vol. 2, No.1, 2000 

Pimental, Benjamin, From a Language of Work, Welfare and Opportunity, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 3, 2000

Physicians for Human Rights, Hunger at Home, A Study of Food Insecurity and Hunger Among Legal Immigrants in the United States, Aug. 2000

Schultze, Steve, US criticizes W-2 dealings with Hmong, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 8, 2000

Sen, Rinku, The First Time was Tragedy, Will the Second be Farce? Fight Welfare “Reform,” Color Lines, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall 2000

Wilson, Greg, Translation needs voiced, Daily News, Aug. 23, 2000

Zimmerman, Wendy, and Tumlin, Karen, Patchwork Policies: State Assistance for Immigrants Under Welfare Reform, The Urban Institute, June 1999

Jane Doe, et al. v. Los Angles County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), December 16, 1999, before the Office of Civil Rights, HHS, filed by

the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Legal Aide Foundation of Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services and Western Center on Law and Poverty

Neng Yang et al. v. O’Keefe, Minnesota Dept of Human Services, USDC, Class Action Complaint, Civil No. 99-2033, filed by Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance

Part 1, Chapter 2

The Trafficking of Asian Women

The Most Grievous of Human Rights Violations

Thonglim Khamphiranon, 41, and Somkhit Yindlphor, 57, two Thai women, were smuggled into the US and enslaved for five years by Supawan Verapol, a Thai national. She forced them to work at her home and her restaurant, the Gulf of Siam in Los Angeles. The women worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and sometimes up to 18 to 20 hours a day at the house and restaurant. They were forced to sleep on the floor outside the employer’s door at night to be at her beck and call. They were denied medical and dental care. One of them was in such pain at one point that she resorted to pulling her own teeth with toenail clippers. They finally escaped in 1998 and found refuge at the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles.1

Scope and Causes of Trafficking

In the trafficking of women, class, race, and gender oppression come together to create the worst exploitation.2 All of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated by the trade in women for sexual or severe labor exploitation. Each year, an estimated 700,000 to two million women and children are trafficked globally. Of that number, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that about 45,000 to 50,000 are brought to the US under false pretenses and held in servitude, forced into prostitution, bonded sweatshop labor, and/or domestic servitude. Approximately 30,000 come from Asia, 10,000 from Latin America, and 5,000 from other regions such as the former Soviet bloc countries and Africa. The primary Asian source countries to the US are Thailand, Vietnam, and China but women have also been trafficked to the US from every poor country of Asia. Trafficking of women has been reported in 20 states, with most cases occurring in New York, California, and Florida.

Trafficking in women flourishes in direct proportion to the growing economic inequity between the developing countries of the South and the industrialized countries of the North.3 Traffickers recruit women in the most impoverished countries where unemployment is high, women have unequal access to employment opportunities, safety nets are nonexistent, and social networks are disintegrating. Denied access to the formal economy, poor women increasingly migrate alone across international borders to support families. Barred from legal immigration because of limited visas issued by receiving countries, women are easily recruited and deceived into traveling with organized crime members to factory jobs,4 domestic work, and sex work.5

In addition, as informal and underground economy grows in the US so does trafficking and slavery. The exploitation of immigrants and women of color is widespread and very much a part of the fabric of the underground economy. Across sectors including the garment, domestic, agricultural, and restaurant industries, multiple violations of minimum wage and overtime, health and safety, workers compensation, and other labor laws occur. Underenforcement of laws by government allows employers to violate laws with impunity, paving the way for trafficking to spread.

Current US Law on Trafficking

Asian women are trafficked into the US in different ways and for various purposes. Whether or not a person is considered to have been trafficked depends on the definition adopted by a country. Until recently, there has not been even a minimally agreed upon definition of trafficking. In October 2000, advocates in the US succeeded in obtaining from Congress, in the recently passed The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (HR 3244), a comprehensive trafficking law with a definition of trafficking, stiffer penalties for traffickers-from 10 to 20 years per count and life sentences if death, kidnapping, sexual abuse, or attempted murder are involved-and protections and services for victims. The definition is broad enough for prosecutors to establish the crime of trafficking where only psychological and no physical coercion is used. If recruitment involved the use of fraud, HR 3244 allows prosecutors to bring cases even where victims agreed to migrate voluntarily to work as a domestic worker or in the sex industry but find themselves in peonage, debt bondage, slavery, or involuntary servitude.

The Broad Spectrum of Trafficking and Exploitation

Trafficking by Organized Crime for the Sex Industry

In February 2001, after a two-year INS probe, 19 members of an Asian smuggling ring operating in the San Francisco Bay Area were indicted for trafficking women into the US from Korea, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries and forcing them to work as prostitutes in brothels in California and other states. The women had to pay off debts of up to $40,000 to the smugglers. The smuggling ring also trafficked immigrant women from other parts of the US, including Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, Louisiana, and New York. The brothels were operated out of as many as 25 single-family homes in suburban settings where they were less likely to arouse suspicion.6

1. Scope and Magnitude

It is unclear how many of the estimated 30,000 Asian women trafficked into the US are destined for the sex trade as no centralized governmental agency is tracking this data. However, it is estimated that 10,000 Asian women are forced to work in Los Angeles’ underground brothels. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has discovered over 250 brothels in 26 different cities where it is likely that trafficking victims are working. It is estimated that about 20 to 30 Thai women are smuggled into US and Canadian brothels each month. Advocates believe that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of brothels, operate as massage parlors, spas, tanning parlors, and beauty salons. Every major city is a receiving center for trafficked women, with the city of Los Angeles receiving the most.7

2. The Traffickers

The CIA believes that traffickers of Asian women into the US are not part of the more established and highly organized crime syndicates.8 Rather, they are primarily small or large criminal groups, working in loosely connected criminal networks. Though their connections are loose, the groups are effective in setting up businesses in the US, concealing the criminal nature of their activities, and deceiving women into accepting them as legitimate recruiters or potential employers. It is known that Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and other Southeast Asian criminal enterprises play an integral part in the smuggling of Asian women to the US, whether as recruiters, jockeys (bringing the women to the US), harborers (providing the safehouses during transit), brothel owners, extortionists, or protectors. A loose joint venture may cut across ethnic and organizational lines and may exist only temporarily for a given opportunity. They may subcontract out parts of their operations to groups such as street gangs in the Asian ethnic enclaves to act as prison guards or retrieve women who have escaped.

3. Enticement and Deception

Traffickers lure women from impoverished countries to the US by making false promises of jobs as waitresses, nannies, models, and factory workers with high wages and good working conditions. Recruiters front the money for travel documents, transportation, and charge the women from $25,000 to $30,000 for their services. Once recruited, the women’s passports are confiscated, their movements are restricted, and many are forced to work as prostitutes until their debts are repaid. Women are prevented from leaving by violence, or threats of violence to themselves or their families. Trafficking victims may also suffer from extreme physical and mental abuse, including rape, imprisonment, and forced abortions. The women live and work in isolation and are denied outside medical attention. Fearing arrest and isolated by language, the women often do not attempt to leave.

4. Enormous Profits/Minimal Risks

The selling of naive and desperate young women into sexual bondage has become one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the global economy. Trafficking in women is now more lucrative than the international trade in drug and arms. Unlike cocaine, women and girls can be sold and resold. Criminal groups make big profits with little risk by dealing in humans; the punishment is minimal. Until HR 3244 created stiffer penalties in the US, the statutory maximum for sale into involuntary servitude was only 10 years per count. Sentences for traffickers of human beings ranged from seven months to nine years. By contrast, the punishment for distributing a kilo of heroin is a life sentence.

Trafficking for Domestic Servitude

Shamela Begum, a Bangladeshi woman, was a live-in domestic in New York for an official at the Bahrain Mission to the UN. Upon her arrival in the US, her passport was taken away by her employer. Over the 10 months that she worked for him, she worked seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, and was only paid $100 a month, which was sent by her employer to Begum’s husband in Bangladesh. When her employers left town, they left Begum no food or money to buy food. She was twice assaulted by her employer’s wife and confined to the house, leaving only twice, both times with the wife. The second time, Begum overheard a conversation in Bengali among some sidewalk vendors. When her employers left town later that day, she left the apartment alone for the first time. Not knowing how to use the elevator, she had to ask a boy to help her get downstairs. She retraced her steps to the vendor and told him her tale. The vendor contacted a Bengali language newspaper, which contacted Andolan, a South Asian workers’ rights group. On August 30, 1999, Andolan brought the police to the apartment and Begum was freed. Because Begum’s employers had diplomatic immunity, they were not arrested.9

Each year, the INS issues 4,000 two-year temporary work visas to diplomats and international bureaucrats based in the US to bring domestic workers to work as nannies, maids, cooks, and gardeners. These visas are issued to diplomats at foreign embassies and consular o