Staff Feature: Ivy O. Suriyopas, Vice President of Programs

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

As the daughter of a Chinese-Thai father and a Filipina mother, I struggled with stereotypes of Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), including being perceived as a “perpetual foreigner.”  When I was in kindergarten, my parents offered me the choice of learning Thai or Tagalog. However, my classmates were already teasing me because of my perceived otherness, and I roundly rejected learning another language because I was “American.”  I received compliments about how “well” I spoke English. And questions such as “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you really from?” when my answer was unsatisfactory for my interrogator, started to trigger me.

I navigated the tension between being a proud child of immigrants and asserting my belonging in a country that constantly challenged the latter. Classes in Asian American Studies in college and critical race theory in law school revealed to me the long history of discrimination against AAPI communities in the United States. I went on to teach two semesters of Asian American Civil Rights and the Law for an undergraduate program. While AAPI communities have long been a part of the fabric of this country, the general lack of knowledge of this history renders AAPIs invisible and erases their presence in the nation. From constructing the transcontinental railroads to laboring on sugar plantations to fighting in wars on behalf of a country that discriminated against them, the history of AAPIs in the United States is long and complex, and is essential to understanding U.S. history. 

AAPI history is also inextricably linked to the history of U.S. immigration law. The Immigration Act of 1875, which prevented women from immigrating from China, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were the first federal laws to restrict immigration in any way. Although AAPIs made up only 0.002% of the nation’s population at the time, Congress restricted immigration explicitly from China through the 1882 law and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible to naturalize. On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and when the United States was weighing the implications of immigration quotas on foreign policy abroad, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally eliminated discriminatory national origin quotas, which opened up immigration from Asia and other parts of the world.

Today, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial group in the nation, growing 81% in the past 20 years, and AAPIs are projected to triple in population by 2060.[i] Immigration is one of the primary drivers of that growth,[ii] and those shifting demographics are causing fear for some and the implementation of hostile policies which target BIPOC communities. AAPIs have a long history in the United States, but AAPI communities also continue to grow and shift as new arrivals contribute to the complexity of the population.  

GCIR’s national convening presents an opportunity for philanthropy to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing immigrants and refugees and how funders can support these communities. I am looking forward to GCIR’s site visit, “Building AAPI Immigrant Power in Houston,” where leaders will highlight the incredible advances they are making to increase civic engagement in AAPI immigrant communities. In the state with one of the largest AAPI populations in the country–including diasporic communities from Vietnam, India, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Korea, and many others–the Houston area is an ideal context for learning about efforts of AAPI communities to build power and welcome newcomers. I look forward to sharing this learning opportunity with our philanthropic community and field leaders in Houston next month.