Changing the Way Asian and Pacific Islanders Ask For Help

Brothers and sisters in the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community, we have a problem. I realize I’m about to make a sweeping generalization, but let’s be honest- we don’t like to address some of the most problematic issues within our families. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that APIs are not sharp tongued, critical, aggressive or direct- because we most definitely are. But I am saying that even with the best intentions, we sometimes fail to really help our loved ones in an effort to avoid bringing up taboo subjects.

This isn’t the first time that issues related to stigma has been brought to light. I’m not writing about a new phenomenon. We have seen this before, with mental health, domestic and sexual abuse, addictions, infidelity, and the list goes on. The issue I’m presently speaking to is something that hasn’t been widely discussed or studied. I’m speaking about the legal status of APIs.

In Washington State, 26% of the undocumented community is made up of people who are API (that’s over a quarter!). Furthermore, over 22,000 of undocumented APIs qualify for some type of immigration relief (i.e., protection from deportation). Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that in my work as the Campaign Director of Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform, a project that addresses the lack of services and support for undocumented APIs, that I commonly come across people who know someone who is undocumented either within their family or within their social network.

Unfortunately, I came to find, after much trial and error, that being within 1 degree of separation did not increase my chances of successfully connecting with the person.

Why? Why was this so hard? The API community is a helpful one, it’s not uncommon practice to share our resources or our talents. Within my own network, my cousin-doctor was praised for his career decision because our family knew it would reduce their medical costs, my dad essentially runs his own version of NPR’s Car Talk, taking phone calls from sometimes strangers looking for free advice, while my sister and I were hired on full-time to interpret, spell check, and define unfamiliar English words for my parents. We do this sometimes with complaint, but not very much resistance because we know that without the power of our social network, we would not be as strong.

In my family, we don’t hesitate to utilize our own resources and talents; additionally members are expected to comply. But, when it comes to asking for help from outsiders, we freeze.

Why then was it so hard for APIs who are closely connected with an undocumented person to bridge the gap and connect them to resources that seem affiliated with the government? In case you missed it, I blogged about this exact topic last week.

I can’t help but analyze the culture I and other APIs live in and how that culture contributes to our ability to fully help ourselves and others. The following are some conclusions I’ve drawn based on my own experiences:

In my family and my API networks, I’ve come to find that we don’t create a culture that allows touchy subjects to be brought up and worked out. It feels unsafe to bring these types of issues into attention. Our desire to keep things within our family, settle matters on our own, behind closed doors and with only the help of a few can be a source of strength- us against the world. We have each other, and that’s all it takes. But, we forget that by not allowing others to help, we are doing our family and our friends a disservice- we are failing to adequately address problems.

My dad can spend a great deal of time listening to someone’s engine over the phone or hearing them try to recreate a “weird” sound, but even with all his expertise, he can never fully assess the issues with a car or provide any preventative service. I’m left wondering, wouldn’t it be better if my aunt in NY started developing a relationship and trust with her local mechanic? Eventually, she’ll have to take her car in and it’s better if that relationship doesn’t start when her car is in crisis.

Additionally, I’ve realized that when there isn’t a professional or pseudo-professional in my family and friends network, we dare not allow or even suggest others (such as an outside source or professional) to assist us. Furthermore, the younger you are, the more out of line it is to bring-up solutions for a problem. And in some cases, these are problems that members in the family were not suppose to know about to begin with.

To bring in a professional, I would be committing to the following crimes:

(1) Exposing the family secret

(2) Inviting an outsider into a private matter

(3) Stirring the pot

(4) Implicating others around me who have been gossiping about the problem

With these things stacked, what does it take to bring interventions into my family? Well, I think it takes bravery. It takes a family or network that is at its end, too tired and too low on resources to be worried about saving face. When we are desperate and hungry for change, we can finally open our minds and allow others to help us. But why should our families wait until they are at or approaching bottom until they ask for help? I think we are capable of doing better and capable to changing the culture to allow for better.

Have others struggled with this issue? What are your experiences?

Notes From The Field: Outreaching To A Hidden Community

Outreach has always been natural to me. I love learning about other people, discovering their needs, their stories, and connecting them to a larger movement or body of work in the community. As the Co-Chair of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum – Seattle Chapter and long time grassroots activist, I’ve had plenty of opportunity and experience outreaching into the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community.

In my most recent position as the creator and Campaign Director of Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!), a Seattle-based project that addresses the lack of services and support for undocumented APIs who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). I have learned that outreaching to a community in hiding is like an up-mountain battle, with small wins and beautiful views but challenging throughout the way.

In the early stages of the work I found a common pattern. That even with the numerous resources I offer through the FAIR! campaign (i.e., access to free immigration attorneys, screenings, scholarships, financial assistance, interpreters, and social support), APIs were still reluctant to pass on our info or services to those who needed it. This was consistent regardless of the positive feedback I would receive, such as, “Wow! I can’t believe there is such a great a program and resource available” or “my (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt) really needs this kind of support.”

This was also consistent regardless of my various follow-up methods, which started with a polite and respectful request, “please pass my card and flyer along to your (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt).” This method produced zero inquiries (unsurprisingly).

I then tried a stronger approach, “I’m glad this resource is going to be useful to your (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt)! Could you provide me with their name and contact info so that I can reach out to them?” I reassured them that I was well intentioned and not looking to deport anyone. But this method, produced concerned looks, uneasiness, and the slow but steady backing away (also, unsurprisingly).

After numerous similar encounters, I noticed something significant. The people I was talking to recognized that they have just shared a deep family secret. For many, this secret was not supposed to be as widely spread. And while this family secret might be well known, it was rarely discussed. Therefore, the idea of bringing a stranger into this secret world would be nothing less than sabotage to their family.

So once again, my outreach methods evolved. Now when I’m within one degree of separation I ask folks for permission to contact them and follow-up about how I can help their (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt).  This method has been far more successful, with nearly 95% of my requests being granted.

I thought I had found the solution! This was going to be it! I now was within a 1 degree separation of helping an undocumented API person and had the follow-up contact info I needed. Equipped with the right information, I made the follow-up phone calls, “Hello, this is Marissa Vichayapai, Director of the FAIR! Campaign. It was really nice talking to you about your (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt), who is undocumented. I just wanted to follow-up and see how I can help him/her/them.”

The responses I received were mixed.

There were those who really were willing to put themselves out there and advocate for their (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt). But overwhelmingly I received responses from those who wanted to advocate but couldn’t get past the initial barriers. From their anecdotes I heard,

“I’m not sure when I’ll see my (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt) again, but when I do I’ll try to mention it.”


“I’ll try to bring it up to my (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt), but I’m not sure.”


“There is no way my (friend/cousin/neighbor/aunt) will want to talk about the issue, sorry.”

This leaves me to wonder, how do I activate these intermediary people? Those who are within one degree of separation from an undocumented API person, how do I get them to bridge the gap? When I am so, so close… but still so, so far. I’m still searching for the right answer.  For those allies who have experience and advice about how to reach hidden communities, please share your tips, techniques, and insights. And for others who are in a similar situation- I have so much gratitude and appreciation for the work you do. Please share your experience and inspirations.

First API DACA Scholarship in Washington State


Marissa Vichayapai

21 Progress


New Scholarship for Undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander Immigrants

1st API DACA Scholarship in Washington State

Seattle, WA


Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!), a campaign of 21 Progress, the leading provider of financial assistance for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Washington State, has started the first scholarship program for undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders in the state.  If qualified, DACA allows undocumented youth and young adult immigrants to stay in the United States without fear of deportation, provides a work permit, and access to educational opportunities.


Asian and Pacific Islanders make up close to 5,500 of the undocumented students and young adults in Washington State, but less than 5% of them have applied for the DACA program which offers access to education and career opportunities,” states Marissa Vichayapai, FAIR! Director.


The FAIR! scholarship pays for the $465 application fee, provides access to free legal assistance, and professional and confidential coordination with any services or programs students and young adults may need. To be eligible for this scholarship, participants should:

  • Be of Asian or Pacific Islander descent
  • Make certain they are eligible for DACA (check eligibility)
  • Have a completed or nearly completed DACA application that has been reviewed by an immigration attorney
  • Apply on the Fearless Asians for Immigration Reform (FAIR!) website: