Asunci'on, Paraguay — The Yang family had never even heard of Paraguay just one week before they left Taiwan for this country in 1983. A travel agent told them this landlocked South American nation was a shortcut to United States citizenship because of its liberal immigration policy and short waiting list for US immigrant visas.
Twice denied US visas in Taiwan, the ambitious family seized the opportunity and moved immediately to this land of siestas and Guarani, the native Indian tongue heard as frequently here as Spanish.
Asian ``visa shopping,'' say Western and Asian diplomats here, is common in Latin America. As many as 75 percent of the immigrant visas being issued by the US consulate here, they say, go to ethnically Asian Paraguayan residents.
``We thought we would be here only a couple of weeks before we got into the United States,'' says Mrs. Yang, who now helps run the family electronics shop on busy Palma Street in Acuncion. They've been waiting three years, but they are undeterred. Because, as one Western diplomat explains, it is a fact that Paraguay is a quicker legal route to the US for such ``visa shoppers.''
``Asians are turning up in alarming numbers. . . And this is just a bus stop for them,'' says the diplomat. If they were to wait out the US immigration press in their native Asian countries, he explains, they might never be allowed into the US.
Because so few native Paraguayans apply to emigrate, ethnic Asians with easy-to-obtain Paraguayan residency can fill quota spaces that might otherwise not be used. The Asians must still qualify for a visa -- either by being related to a US resident, by possessing a special labor skill needed in the US, or by having business in the US -- but there is a shorter waiting list of those qualified. Nearly 300 US immigrant visas a year are issued through the consulate here.
``That's not a lot, but this is a slow-moving post that should have only 50 visa applicants a year,'' says a US Embassy official. ``The percentage is incredible, even though the numbers may not be. Paraguay is where this [visa shopping phenomenon] is really noticeable.''
Though the Yangs have been unsuccessful in getting visas for their family of four, they continue to plan for life in the US. They send their sons -- 6 and 9 years old -- to a school taught in English. And the boys receive extra English-language classes after school -- but only by American English speakers.
``We don't want them to have accents,'' Mrs. Yang explains with confidence that her boys will be Americans.
Similarly, an informal survey of Asian students at the Paraguayan Cultural Center here suggests that most of their families plan on eventually living in the US.
According to unofficial sources, several thousand Asians live here. Most are Koreans, but there are also Taiwanese and a growing number of Hong Kong Chinese looking for a new home in anticipation of the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control in 1997. Newspapers here have reported that the Paraguayan government is considering allowing 3,500 Hong Kong Chinese residency here. (Because Monitor requests for interviews with government officials were never answered, no official confirmation of immigration policies or statistics were available.)
President Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's government policy on immigration is widely believed to be dictated by individual whim and corruption, say foreign diplomats, Paraguayan businessmen, immigrants, former government officials, and average citizens.
The Yangs, for example, say they paid a government official $1,100 apiece for their residency papers here in 1983. Meanwhile, an American who arrived within the same period reports he was only asked to pay $27 for the same documents.
Paraguay has a rich and quirky history of immigration. It has been safe haven for such odd company as Jewish and Nazi refugees, Mennonites, and foreign outlaws. This liberal immigration policy stems from a series of wars that decimated the Paraquayan male population. Further, the nation has wanted to hold onto its vast wilderness regions by populating them with immigrants.
For example, a colony of Mennonites established in western Paraguay in 1925 now produces much of the nation's produce and meat on land they carved out of stubborn scrub forests full of jaguar, puma, vipers, and roving herds of dangerous peccary.
Most of the Asians who have come here, with the exception of a colony of Japanese farmers, have not settled in these wild regions where their own farming techniques wouldn't apply. Instead, they have started hugely successful small businesses in Asunci'on -- where they do a booming business during the three-hour siesta in which all other Asunci'on businesses close up.
``They come from crowded societies where if you're not aggressive you don't survive,'' says one Paraguayan. ``This is a slow, gentle society by contrast.''
And so there has been some cultural clash. Paraguayans are often critical of the successful Asians. While the government shows no signs of a let-up in permitting new Asian residents, Paraguayans who are feeling the strains of unemployment and inflation typical of most Latin American nations today do not want to see an increase in the economic competition that the Asians are perceived to bring.
Meanwhile, as long as Asians perceive this to be a backdoor to the US they will continue to come.