A Q&A with the HANA Center: White Supremacy’s Impact on AAPI Communities

By Juan Carlos Gomez 

Anti-Asian racism has often been the foundation of anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies throughout our nation’s history. However, an increase of racist and white supremacist rhetoric has resulted in a rise of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) being targeted and attacked this past year. A report from Stop AAPI Hate found nearly 4,000 hate incidents occurred between March 19, 2020 and February 2021, with hate crimes increasing by nearly 150 percent in many cities. 

The heightened xenophobia and attacks against the AAPI community have caused real mental health impacts including increased cases of anxiety and depressive episodes. Children in AAPI families are also facing bullying and racism in schools, and this, in part, has been a deciding factor for some families choosing not to send their children back to school as they reopen. 

As AAPI families continue to weather the hardships of both the pandemic and continued attacks on their communities, HANA Center, a nonprofit working to meet the needs of Korean, other Asian American, and multiethnic immigrant communities in the Chicago area, provides critical supports for families, including immigration services, mental health counseling, and early childhood education, while organizing for systemic change. CLASP spoke with Taneka Hye Wol Jennings, Deputy Director of Programs at HANA Center, to discuss how families and young people in their community have been impacted. 

How have families engaged with HANA Center been impacted over the past year - both by the realities of the pandemic and the increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiment?

This past year has been incredibly challenging for our Korean, Asian American, and multiethnic immigrant community members. Some of those most impacted by the pandemic have been undocumented and limited-English speaking individuals and families without access to health insurance who lost employment or wages and were left out of federal relief packages, putting them at risk of homelessness.

We know the challenges facing our communities didn’t start with COVID-19. Rather, the pandemic emerged as an exacerbating force at the tail end of four years of one of the most anti-immigrant federal Administrations in recent U.S. history. 

Under the Trump Administration, our families and communities were constantly under attack - from the proposed changes to Public Charge and the citizenship test, to attempts to eliminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), to ICE raids targeting sanctuary cities, to caging of children at the southern border. Many of our immigrant families lived in daily fear of family separation and being deprived of their basic human rights and safety. Black and Brown immigrants in particular also lived with the knowledge that any interaction with law enforcement could result in bodily harm—and even loss of life. On top of all this, President Trump intentionally stoked and sanctioned a public wave of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate in order to shift blame for his Administration’s mishandling of the pandemic.

What impact, if any, has the pandemic had on community members’ utilization of different services provided by the HANA Center? 

During the pandemic, communities engaged with HANA Center experienced a sudden and intense surge in urgent need. During the initial weeks and months of the pandemic, a large number of small businesses were forced to shut down, leaving immigrant families without an income, and many were not able to access federal benefits due to their immigrant status. During one three-day period, HANA received over 5,000 voicemails to one of our COVID-19 assistance hotlines from community members seeking emergency relief. 

HANA has been one of many organizations working hard to design and launch new programs to help immigrant community members meet basic needs, including food security and housing. Since COVID-19 began, HANA has distributed more than $1.6 million in emergency housing, utilities, and cash assistance to over 1,000 immigrant community members in the Chicagoland area. We also provided in-language navigation to support more than 600 Korean-speaking community members in Illinois to apply for and maintain critical unemployment benefits. Demand for community-based mental health services has also increased exponentially, and HANA counselors’ caseloads are consistently at full capacity.

We know HANA Center has an early childhood center. What are some of the challenges and most urgent needs children and families you work with have been experiencing?

Ninety-five percent of children and families enrolled in HANA’s early childhood center are immigrants of color. An estimated one third of our families are undocumented, and many have struggled to make ends meeting during COVID-19. Although our early childhood education programs are publicly subsidized, families have struggled to keep up with their co-pays. Linking them with our emergency cash assistance programs has helped. Earlier in the pandemic, mandated closures of on-site services due to COVID-19 also posed a significant challenge for working families with limited child care options.

Have you seen any changes in the mental and behavioral health of youth and young adults?

Absolutely. Many of our young people, particularly Asian women, have struggled with increased anxiety and fear for their safety with the rise in incidents of anti-Asian hate. After a lifetime of being hyper-sexualized and targeted because of their gender and race, women in our community have experienced an escalation in verbal assaults and incidents like being spit on in public. Some community members have expressed that they are afraid to leave their homes.

What are community-based service and advocacy organizations like HANA Center doing to support youth in AAPI families and make them feel safe and valued during this time? 

After the tragic shootings in Atlanta, HANA Center responded by organizing a number of vigils and rallies with our partner organizations, centering multigenerational women of color to mourn this incredible loss of life, and speak out against the racialized misogyny at the root of this and other injustices impacting Asian women. These vigils also helped us build solidarity in this moment with other impacted communities as we continue to mobilize for critical changes in systems and policies that protect and advance equity and justice for our communities. 

Storytelling is one way we have been centering and uplifting experiences of our community members. Storytelling can be both a source of healing for the storyteller and participants as well as a call to action. Earlier this year, we held an event as part of our #CitizenshipForAll campaign highlighting diverse stories of several undocumented Asian and Latinx immigrant women. We have also facilitated opportunities for Korean American women, including young people and elders, to share their experience with anti-Asian hate in the media. In addition, we have continued to convene our Women That Fight and other youth-led community building groups and organizing councils.

Finally, we recognize that we must continue to do our own work as Asian Americans to know and be rooted in our histories, understand how our communities have been impacted by white supremacy and patriarchy, as well as acknowledge and address the ways anti-Blackness shows up in our communities, so we can build a more authentic solidarity with other oppressed communities toward justice.

What legislation can be passed to support children in AAPI immigrant children and families?

I’m so glad you asked! This past year has been a time of reckoning for our country about the injustices experienced by people of color, women, and immigrants. It is also an opportunity to build our critical consciousness and advance legislation that brings about increased safety, protections, and dignity for all people. If we truly believe that all people are worthy of dignity, safety, and love, then we need comprehensive solutions like #CitizenshipForAll for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, including tens of thousands of intercountry adoptees, who should have been guaranteed this right when they were brought to this country by their U.S. citizen parents. Legislation with a pathway to Citizenship For All leaves no room for criminal bars, because no person should have to live in fear of separation from their family or the only home they know. 

Budget reconciliation presents a critical moment for Congress to pass legislation to secure Citizenship For All. Here in Illinois, we are calling on our own U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, as the second-highest ranking Senate leader and Chair of Judiciary Committee, to lead the Senate in getting Citizenship For All done. Including immigrants in budget reconciliation is one solid way to do this. Congress must also act to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021. We are calling on the Biden Administration to keep their word and work with Congress to pass Citizenship For All NOW!