Immigration important among Asian American voters


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It’s a cool autumn evening, and Roger Pei sits slumped on a couch at the University of Iowa’s Asian Pacific American Cultural Center.

“The next president will have a big effect on what my job will be,” the pre-medical major said, fully aware of the impact of the coming Election Day.

The sophomore said he and his parents — who came from Shanghai to America — are concerned about the economy.

Like many Americans, Asian Americans are concerned about economic issues, jobs, and education. But while the government and the media tend to focus on Latinos when immigration issues arise, the reality is that immigration issues are equally important among Asian-American voters.

The Asian-American population has taken the lead in the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. In 2010, 36 percent of immigrants arriving in this country were Asian; 31 percent were Latino.

Despite this growth, Asian Americans still only make up roughly 6 percent of the population, 2 percent in Iowa.

But Melany Dela Cruz, the director at the University of California-Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Community Development Data Center, said as more Asians settle in the United States, more will become engaged in politics.

“Because we’re very much foreign-born, it’s going to take time for some of the Asian immigrant populations to form a community, to organize themselves,” said Dela Cruz, who is of Filipino decent, said.

A large percentage of Asian Americans, 74 percent, remain foreign born, the Pew research concludes.

Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies elections, said making a more international appeal could be beneficial for the candidates.

“It seems to me the appeal candidates can make to bring in Asian Americans, more broadly, is to be internationalist and being more welcoming of immigrants in general,” he said.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s immigration policies call for fixing a “broken immigration system,” to better alignment with the U.S.’s current economy. His policies also call for tighter security to hinder illegal immigration.

Stewart says some view Romney’s approach as harsh on immigration.

“The thing that strikes me when talking to 20 years of Asian-American students is [the impression] that the Republican Party seems to be hostile to immigrants,” Stewart said. “Even people who you’d expect to be Republican are gravitating toward Democratic candidates; they feel like Democratic candidates or policymakers won’t hassle them the way Republicans will.”

But Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker said he doesn’t see it as harsh; he thinks it’s a firm belief that immigrants should come to America legally.

“We want people to come here,” he said. “It keeps America fresh and new, when you’re adding new culture and people to our country.”

In 2008, President Obama promised to establish immigration legislation, which didn’t come to full fruition. However, his efforts with the Developmental, Relief, and Education for all Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act) has received some praise. The act grants immunity for illegal immigrants who came to American at the age of 15 or younger to obtain an education in the United States.

“The DREAM act applies to everyone; that’s not just specific to any demographic,” said Elizabeth Purchia, Iowa press secretary for Obama for America.

In a demographic where roughly half hold at least a bachelor’s degree, education and the economy are also important issues for Asian Americans.

Still, Asian American voters haven’t seen the candidates spend much time focusing on their vote in comparison to other demographics, though both campaigns have groups established.

But Dela Cruz said she thinks that will change as more Asian Americans live a successful life in the United States and seek higher positions and political office.

“I think it’s more important at the local level right now,” she said about the Asian-American vote. “As you start to see more [Asian-American] higher officials get elected, you’ll start to see the influence change. Asian Americans will have more of a voice.”

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