May 29, 2008
Perhaps Vincent Chin, whose death in 1982 fomented the pan-ethnic Asian American movement, can rest assured that America’s leaders have finally heard his community’s voice. On May 17, 2008, APIA Vote, in conjunction with the Ninth Annual Convention of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (NCAPACD), hosted its first ever presidential town hall meeting at University of California Irvine’s Bren Event Center.
Asians comprise one of the United States’ fastest-growing ethnic groups making Asian voting participation a major factor in the 2008 elections. The town hall event discussed many of the Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander (AAPI) community’s primary issues and concerns.
Historically, Asian Americans had to fight for recognition within the political arena. Things began to change after the 1965 Immigration Act, which led to unprecedented growth of the U.S. Asian population. Today, there are currently over 14.4 million Asian Americans and approximately 1 million Pacific Islanders. While their numbers increase, many Asians face voting barriers, such as a lack of language assistance at the polls. This hasn’t stopped the AAPI community from engaging in the political process.
A 2004 News California Media poll showed that 62 percent of AAPI voters thought that the 2004 presidential election was the most important election of their lifetime. Voting impediments, such as lack of interpreters, have not deterred Asian Americans from voting. In 2004, 85.2 percent of registered Asian American voters participated in the election, showing the tremendous rise within the AAPI presence.
Getting AAPI Youth Involved
A crucial element within the AAPI community is its increasingly active youth voter constituency. In Los Angeles County alone, over 23,000 Asian American youth voted in the 2004 general election and 61 percent of those were first-time voters (PDF). Although there is an increase in youth participation, there is a divergence between political parties among the older and younger generations. According to a Harvard University Institute of Politics survey, 47 percent of Asian American youth identified themselves as Democratic, 39 percent as Independent, and 15 percent as Republican.
“I think there is a huge generation gap,” says sophomore Grace Young, co-president of UC Irvine’s Asian Pacific Student Association. “As a second-generation Taiwanese American whose parents came as grad students, [there is] a pretty big political gap between my parents and I. They are pretty conservative and vote Republican.”
Surprisingly, however, the town hall meeting showed that many of the participants shared similar opinions on issues across age groups. Despite their generational or political differences, the audience was united in its concerns about health care, affordable housing, voting rights, immigration, gang violence and access to higher education. The event’s keynote speakers addressed the audience’s core issues while reaching out to young voters.
Flashing his trademark smile, Congressman Mike Honda (D-Calif.), came decked in a white T-shirt and jeans, which belied his approachable, friendly nature. He encouraged Asian American youth to become engaged in the political sector by saying, “We want [the future President] to be able to reflect, understand, and be intellectual about who we are. Asians want to be part of the government, be part of the administration, be part of the different agencies that we have running in this country right now… so that we do not have to be constantly private.”
Joining Honda for the event was former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, a consistent advocate for Asian American issues. Mineta delivered a riveting welcoming speech that redefined the idea of Asian Americans within the “melting pot” of America.
“Many people today say that America is a melting pot where you have different people from different countries coming together and put into this crucible, stirred up,” explained Mineta. “I do not buy that theory. I think of our country as tapestry. [AAPI] have yarn with different colors. Each of these yarns is strong and vibrant on their own…through art, religion, and language. They don’t lose their identity. Yet woven together, [the AAPI] aim for a strong hold, and that’s what [makes the] United States [what it] is…the tapestry.”
After Honda and Mineta’s welcoming notes, the morning discussion session provided a platform for organizers and participants from around the nation to speak out on voter issues. Many of the major AAPI nonprofit organizations were present, including the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Asian American Justice Center, South Asian American Leading Together, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and the Asian Pacific Labor Alliance, to name a few.
Numerous Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander groups greeted the assembly with an “aloha” as organizations like Islander Vote (I-Vote) addressed voting rights. Other individuals expressed concern for issues such as gang violence and educational opportunities for Pacific Islanders, including Samoan and Tongan youth, who have a 50 percent high school dropout rate.
Youth Collaborative speakers from NCAPACD expressed similar concerns. They highlighted the importance for better resources for attaining higher education, including more qualified ESL teachers for non-English speaking immigrant students. According to the 2000 Census, 79 percent of Asians (age 5 and older) spoke a language other than English at home.
Following the morning session, as campaign representatives passed out information on behalf of presidential candidates Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain, some 193 organizations and over 2,000 people filed into the Bren Event Center’s corridors. Although afternoon entertainment mainly targeted young adults, with performances by American Idol participant Camile Velasco, Def Jam Poet Beau Sia, and dancers Kaba Modern from MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, many elders also attended, including a group of Cambodian veterans. Similar to the morning session, the afternoon discussions challenged assumptions about the voting preferences among different AAPI age groups.
Early nationwide polls of Asian Americans suggested an overwhelming 3 to 1 preference for Hilary Clinton. However, despite California’s overwhelming support for Clinton in the February primaries, few supporters came out for Clinton’s televised appearance at the event. California State Controller John Chiang introduced Clinton, who adamantly outlined her views on affordable housing and health care. She explained, “I’ve proposed a universal health care plan…that would eliminate ethnic disparities…and provide funds for culturally competent healthcare professionals.” Clinton also emphasized her efforts to hire more senior legal representatives to governmental positions.
Although Hawaii cast 76 percent of its primary votes for Barack Obama, a discussion has lingered over Obama’s perceived lack of Asian American support. The issue has raised a controversial question: Are Asian Americans not voting for Obama simply because he’s black? Asian Americans at the town hall meeting challenged that notion, and displayed huge support for the senator from Illinois during his live telephone speech. Representative Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) introduced Obama, who thanked APIA Vote and outlined his endeavors to help Asian Americans.
“I consider myself part of you,” remarked Obama. “And what you care about and what you believe in as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, such as building a better life for the next generation, that’s what the American dream is about. You represent that.”
The loudest applause came after his push for the Dream Act, which would grant undocumented immigrant students a path to citizenship and governmental financial aid. Obama also expressed support for the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, educational issues, and voting rights. He also took questions from the audience, including one about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that affirmed Indiana’s right to require voters to obtain state-issued ID cards. “We shouldn’t be scaring voters, we should be bringing them to the polls,” Obama replied.
California Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Calif.) represented John McCain, who was unable to attend the event because he was taping Saturday Night Live in New York. Tran explained how McCain’s campaign focused on national security, tax cuts, wasteful government spending, and health care reform. Unfortunately, many weary participants began exiting the Bren Events Center as the day wore on.
Whether Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, or South Asian, the Town Hall meeting proved to be successful in uniting different Asian ethnic identities together. Linda Vo, professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California Irvine, summed up what the town hall meeting meant and represented:
“We are making history.”
For more information, visit APIA Vote.
Audrey Au is a graduating senior at the University of California-Irvine, double majoring in literary journalism and international studies honors. She hopes to obtain a dual degree in public interest law and public policy.