New York - A controversial new immigration law in Arizona has fanned public furor over its perceived anti-Latino aspects, but increasing arrests of Chinese illegal immigrants has brought the issue to Asian communities.
"The Arizona law is an affront to all people of color and all Americans, and especially people of color who have been subjected to racial profiling," said Norman Eng, spokesperson for the New York Immigration Coalition. "Chinese people are no strangers to that."
The act requires law enforcement to request immigration papers from anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. It has been denounced by politicians and advocacy groups as racist and unconstitutional.
"What is happening in Arizona is a very familiar pattern of anti-immigrant efforts on the local level to discourage immigrants from coming to the US," said Bill Ong Hing, an immigration expert and law professor at the University of San Francisco and UC Davis.
"It's analogous to what happened first against Chinese immigrants with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for 10 years, and later against Japanese immigrants."
According to border patrol stats, 332 Chinese immigrants were arrested in Arizona in 2009, up from 30 in 2008.
"It's the norm to associate illegal immigrants with Mexicans, but the number of Chinese illegal immigrants is also significant," said Peter Chan, former president of the Tucson Chinese Association.
Estimates have put the number of illegal immigrants in the US at 10 to 12 million, with 10 percent Asians, said Hing. Of them, about half are Chinese or Filipino, he said.
"Characteristics like language fluency, accent and style of dress will be major factors in whether a police officer decides a person is worthy of suspicion," said Ronald Lee, senior attorney for the Asian American Justice Center.
According to Lee, about one-fourth of Asian Americans in Arizona are classified as limited-language proficient.
"Learning English is not required by the constitution," Hing said. "But beyond that, what people don't understand is that a lot of ESL programs are over-subscribed, and a lot of immigrants simply don't have the opportunity. All immigrant parents want their children to learn English and become members of society. People forget that."
Experts attribute the rapid rise in illegal Chinese immigration to various factors.
Peter Kwong, a Hunter College professor and author of "Chinese Americans: An Immigrant Experience," believes smugglers are preying on a pervasive fear that US laws will soon be tightened to prevent amnesty for immigrants already living in the US.
Widespread myths about the US remain in China, Hing said. Many immigrants from Fujian province told him they had been promised high-paying jobs but were forced to work in restaurants, grocery stores or factories to repay their debts. Smugglers reportedly receive up to $40,000 for each smuggled person.
"These immigrants come here in hopes of finding Gold Mountain," Hing said.
Some view the need for protest as urgent, in light of a long history of anti-immigration bias and legislation in the US.
"We look back on the Chinese Exclusion acts, and we realize it was such a shame that our nation acted in that way," Eng said. "I think we'll do the same looking back at the Arizona law. Hopefully the courts will strike it down."