Asian Americans seek voice and political power

Asian American early voting ballot receipt
Asian Americans organizations are helping minority voters who ask to be heard and seek political representation in this election. (Advancing Justice-Chicago)

By Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang and Jingzhe Kelly Wang

It was a Wednesday night, five days before early voting started in Illinois and Paula Camaya, a freshman at Loyola University, joined more than 20 others at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago in Uptown to call people in the community to make their votes count.

“We have been brushed aside for so long,” said Camaya, a Filipino American. “This is a huge population of people. Some people whose family has been here for generations, some who are like me, just got here. It’s important to be involved.”

Immigration has been one of the key issues in this year’s presidential election. However, in the debates, candidates from the major two parties rarely mentioned Asian Americans, the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group nationwide, according to a Pew Research Center report on The Rise of Asian Americans.

Now Asian Americans are asking to be heard and seeking political representation in this election to make sure they have a voice.

The quest for recognition partially reflects the surge in the community’s growth. The Asian American population grew 43 percent nationally and 39 percent in Illinois from 2000 to 2010. They make up 5.2 percent of the state’s population, the highest among its six neighboring states, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

Across the nation, Asian Americans have made political inroads and Theresa Mah, who will become Illinois’ first Asian American state legislator come election day, is one of the pioneers. She won a hotly contested race in the Democratic Primary in the Spring in the 2nd District, and is unopposed on Nov. 8.

“It puts me in a position to create a pipeline. Once we get someone in there at the top, it’s easier to pull other people with you,”said Mah, the child of Chinese immigrants and a former university professor. “It’s an opening for even more Asian Americans to get a foot in the door in the government.”

Indeed, there’s a surge of Asian American candidates across the U.S.

There are 33 Asian and Pacific Islander American candidates running for office at the federal level, according to data from Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), as of October 6. Indian Americans top the list, followed by Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

In Illinois, two Asian Americans are running for federal seats. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), born in Thailand, is vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the son of Indian immigrants, is the Democratic candidate running for Duckworth’s seat, representing Illinois 8th District.

Reema Kapur, Executive Director with South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI), said she sees more Asian American candidates running for office across the country and, as a result, an increased interest in the presidential election anecdotally.

“So there is an expectation that voters will be more engaged,” said Kapur, whose group is based in Chicago.

The National Asian American Survey shows an average of 600,000 new voters register in each presidential election cycle. The number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders eligible to vote in Illinois grew 36 percent from 2000 to 2010, compared to the average three percent growth for voters statewide, according to APIAVote.

Despite the growth in population, Asian American have shown the lowest voter turnout in the past elections among ethnic groups. About three out of ten Asian American eligible voters have cast their ballots in midterm elections since 2002, according to the Pew Research Center

There are a lot of issues that keep them from actually casting a ballot,” Mah said, adding that  language access issues and unfamiliarity with the voting process are two reasons behind the overall lower turnout rate among Asian American voters.

Nowadays, however, Asian Americans are more engaged in turning out their community’s vote. Almost every major organization in Illinois’ diverse amalgam of Asian American communities has set up voter outreach programs or voter education events during this election season.

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) is an example. They managed to register almost 400 new voters this year through canvassing and phone banking.

Their efforts on redistricting helped Mah win in March. Their civic engagement team registered more than 1,600 new voters in Greater Chinatown in 2008.

The voter turnout rate during this year’s primary for the three precincts in Chinatown was 45 percent, which grew more than two fold as compared to  past election years.

C.W. Chan, Chairman of CBCAC, said he has seen increased enthusiasm among Chinese Americans on social media and political campaigns over the past year.

“I’m very hopeful because of the energy that we are demonstrating,” Chan said.

SAAPRI is another organization that is working hard to boost Asian American voters’ enthusiasm over the past year.

Serving as a policy and research center for the South Asian communities in the Chicago area, SAAPRI conducted a forum for community leaders and stakeholders to share best practices and come up with a framework. Kapur said that will possibly increase the voter turnout and create an issue-based voting bloc.

The organization also teamed up with college students in Chicago to educate voters and to address the issue of undocumented immigrants.

“In Illinois, Indian Americans alone make up the second-largest undocumented population, and yet not a lot of people inside or outside of our community are aware of that statistic,” Kapur said.

It is important to talk to citizens about municipal, state and federal policies that support the members, Kapur added. “We are not only casting a vote for ourselves but we are also casting votes and weighing in on behalf of individuals who are affected by immigration policy but are unable to vote,” she said.

Nearly 1.5 million undocumented immigrants come from Asia, making them the second largest group in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. Illinois was ranked the fifth largest state in the report with undocumented immigrants mainly from Mexico, India, Guatemala and China.

Kristina Tendilla, a community organizer from Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, said that the anti-immigrant rhetoric has motivated many Asian Americans to commit to voting in this election.

As the Asian Americans population continues grows, this election is a chance for them to represent themselves in the democracy, she said. “I think that’s a motivation and an important moment for Asian Americans,” Tendilla said.

Photo at top: Asian American organizations are helping fellow minority voters seek political representation in this election. (Photo courtesy of Advancing Justice|Chicago)