Census Shows Asians Fastest-Growing Immigrant Group in Oregon

Nov 14, 2017

Marshall Islanders in the Salem Keizer School District at an after school workshop.
Credit Jacob Lewin

A recent Census Bureau survey shows that people from Asia make up a third of all immigrants in Oregon.  They are our fastest growing minority and our fastest growing immigrant group.

Bell sounds....

Bells, gifts from Japan and South Korea at the Oregon Convention Center, are meant to express a link between Oregon and the Pacific Rim.  More than a quarter million Asians, half of them immigrants, live here. But Joseph Santos-Lyons, of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, says they seem to stay under the radar:

"We have fewer institutions here in Oregon. We have fewer bricks and mortar places outside of maybe restaurants versus other places like San Francisco or Seattle."

The number of Asian-Americans in Oregon has doubled since 2000. There are 20 million Asians in the U.S., but they lack visibility in popular culture:

"If you look across all of media and look for Asian role models, women are beautiful and they are somehow exotic, and men are typically the tech nerds."

Born in Taiwan, David Chen is a venture capitalist and a former high tech executive in Oregon. Historically Asians in Oregon have been the subject of racism. The Chinese were here first.  Under an 1862 law, they paid a special tax or worked on labor gangs, and were the victims of arson and beatings.  In 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese immigration.  To make up for the labor shortfall, Japanese came and grew berries, asparagus, and pears in the Willamette Valley and Hood River.  Then came 1942:

(Sound of chimes)

Metal i-d tags, replicas of those worn by the 120-thousand Japanese-Americans forced from the West Coast inland to internment camps during World War II.  The tags chime at an art work at Portland's Expo Center, which was a staging area for internees.   Joseph Santos-Lyons says there are still Asian stereotypes, but they are different today:

"One of the biggest stereotypes is the model minority myth which has been around since the sixties that really purports to put East Asians on a pedestal and saying that because of some inherent qualities that we may possess that we are the exception among people of color."

Santos-Lyons says that there are many struggling Asian immigrants in Oregon.  For example, 40-percent of all nail technicians are Asian. But Asians do have a significantly higher high school graduation rate than whites and almost half of Asian immigrants in Oregon have a BA or graduate degree.  David Chen says it's nothing inherent. It's hard work. 21-percent of all software developers in Oregon are Asian:

"This is a little flippant but anyone who's listening that's Asian will resonate.  You're sort of given two choices as a kid.  You're either a doctor or you're an engineer.  When I graduated from business school, my dad said to me, "Congratulations....you know it's not too late to go to medical school."

There is still racism but it's more subtle today.  Chen has personal knowledge of the bamboo ceiling:

"My dad was a very senior research manager at NASA Ames.  He was denied promotion, and the reason they gave for him not being able to be promoted was his English capability. My dad then submitted the fact that he had well over a hundred peer-reviewed technical articles that had been published in leading journals and he had been a visiting professor at Stanford."

Chinese make up the biggest group of Asian immigrants in Oregon.  There are also large numbers from Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, and refugees from wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. They speak nearly 40 languages.  If you want to find out how to say hello in Marshallese:

"Yaguey!"

Go to Four Corners Elementary School in Salem. 

Pacific Islanders are amongst the fastest growing groups of Asian immigrants in Oregon. There are 25-thousand.  The Marshall Islands were the site of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the fifties.  The U.S. now has a compact with the Marshallese:

"What the compact says is that because of the testing, a Marshallese citizen can come here, no visa. There's no expiration date of your stay."

Kathleen Jonathan is a Salem-Keizer schools outreach worker who works with kids to overcome some of the differences they brought with them."

"The culture is it's like the old says where the teacher lectures and the students listen. You don't question, very obedient, and if you look at somebody in the eye, especially an elder, you are being disrespectful."

(Ukes playing)

The district added after-school programs, including one that teaches ukulele, part of the islands' culture. And tutoring has helped raise the graduation rate of Pacific Islanders in Salem.

Some Pacific Islanders are here for health reasons as a result of the weapons testing.  Marshall Islander Ranny Lejjena is among the Asian immigrants to Oregon who first came to California, weren't happy there, and tried Oregon:

"The way I see Oregon is beautiful.  The grass, trees. It almost brings back our memory. Sometimes when I go to the countryside, it's like back on the island."

Recent immigrants have come to Oregon for safety, for high tech jobs, because their country is literally disappearing due to global warming, to join family members. Joseph Santos-Lyons says that's despite the current political climate in the U.S.:

"Many of the communities that our communities come from have politics that are just as bad or worse than here. Repressive, violent, and that the idea of being involved in civic life is considered dangerous."

Santos-Lyons doesn't see the immigration trend ending soon.

Funding for KLCC's  Borders, Migration, and Belonging series is provided by Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.