Sixteen Asian American men and women boarded a van in Springfield, Va., early one recent morning, armed with brochures and talking points. They were headed to Richmond for a day of lobbying, strategizing and mingling with state legislators and officials.
Some were seasoned advocates, such as Dewita Soeharjono of Arlington, 50, an Indonesian immigrant who has spent years pushing for minority access to Virginia’s Democratic Party machinery. Others were neophytes, such as Trung Nguyen, 28, a youth worker in Falls Church and the son of Vietnamese refugees whose first civic experience was serving on his fifth-grade student council in New Orleans.
Everyone in the van was anxious about the journey ahead, both the long-planned day of outreach events and the uncharted future of their fast-growing minority as it begins to test the rough waters of public life.
Over the past 15 years, Virginia’s population of Asian Americans has soared from 261,000 to 628,000, including 250,000 U.S. citizens of voting age. But despite their potential to influence elections in a closely watched battleground state, many remain reluctant to engage in politics. The group in the van, and a growing number of younger Asian Americans, are determined to change that.
“The older generation was told to be quiet, not to participate,” Nguyen said as the van cruised south on Interstate 95. “I grew up here speaking English. . . . I want Asian Americans to speak out and have our voices heard.”
With immigrants a focus of angry debate in the 2016 presidential race, activists are working to mobilize the nation’s 18 million Asian Americans, about 75 percent of whom are U.S. citizens. One national nonprofit group is setting up phone banks in every state with a significant Asian American population. A new progressive PAC, the Asian American Pacific Islander Victory Fund, aims to register 100,000 voters in six battleground states.
Some advocates say they hope the anti-immigrant vitriol that has marked this year’s campaign can propel new activism from Asian Americans who have stayed on the sidelines.
In Virginia, Asian American activists from both parties are gearing up for Super Tuesday on March 1, when Virginia and 14 other states and territories will hold primaries or caucuses. They have been visiting Korean churches, speaking at Filipino community halls and seeking coverage in Vietnamese-language newspapers, trying to reach potential voters in their comfort zones.
But even though 61 percent of adult Asian American citizens in the state are registered to vote — a total more than double the margin of victory in many recent elections — advocates say they face a struggle to translate that potential into action.
According to U.S. census tables, turnout among Asian American citizens in Virginia has been consistently lower than among the overall population; in the 2012 election, Asians had lower turnout than all other ethnic groups. Their participation has zigzagged from race to race, with 61 percent voting in 2008, a presidential year, but only 23 percent voting in 2010. In the most recent state election, in 2014, turnout was 42 percent overall, 45 percent for whites, 34 percent for blacks, 32 percent for Asians and 25 percent for Hispanics.
“We are a pivotal constituency in a swing state with close elections, and both parties are trying for the Asian American vote. You see candidates shaking hands at all our events. But it is still very hard to mobilize people,” said Wesley Joe, an adjunct assistant professor of government at Georgetown University whose father immigrated from Korea. “We have the values and the education, but we just don’t have the turnout.”
Mark L. Keam (D), 49, one of two Asian Americans in the Virginia House of Delegates, describes one of the challenges as “permanent foreigner syndrome.” Keam’s district includes part of Fairfax County, home to 183,000 Asian Americans. “Many people have arrived recently, and mentally they are still in the old world,” he said. “I have a hard time convincing them they have to cross over to the new.”
Among first-generation immigrants, obstacles to political involvement include concentration on moving up economically, poor English skills, unfamiliarity with the American political system and reluctance to invite public scrutiny.
Many, especially those from China and Vietnam, harbor memories of political intimidation abroad. Others remain glued to issues in their homelands — often through foreign-language cable TV — rather than shifting their attention to U.S. politics.
Among second-generation Asian Americans, there is more political interest. Yet Asian-born parents tend to steer their children into professions rather than public service, community leaders said, leading to a dearth of candidates and role models. Even in Northern Virginia, only a handful of Asian Americans have been elected to local office.
Sharon Bulova, a Democrat who chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said many Asian newcomers have been too focused on work to join homeowner associations and other “portals” to politics. Even their more assimilated children, Bulova said, “have to be invited to feel comfortable.”
Another reason for the disconnect between size and clout is ethnic balkanization. Despite various efforts to form pan-Asian coalitions, many Asian immigrants identify themselves chiefly by country of origin and socialize in their native languages. Some remain divided by historical conflicts, such as the rivalry between Pakistan and India.
And although Asian Americans tend to share common concerns, such as small business benefits and high-quality education, there are differences in ideology and partisan affiliation. Indian Americans tend to be Democrats; Vietnamese Americans tend to be Republicans. Nationwide, nearly half of Asian Americans register as independents or undecided, making them hard for political groups to target.
“Our biggest challenge is diversity. People bring baggage from home, and they are still fighting old battles,” Keam said. “I tell them, only if we join forces can we be strong and fight for our rights and become a swing vote.”
After arriving in Richmond, Soeharjono and the others were guided to a caucus room in the capitol for a formal welcome to the 12th annual Asian American advocacy day. Ting Yi Oei, a retired teacher from Reston who chairs the Council of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans of Virginia, urged them to venture out and practice their lobbying skills.
“Feel free to seek out your own delegates. Remember to go right up and greet them,” Oei said.
For the next hour, Soeharjono and two other women wandered the carpeted corridors, stopping often to consult a floor map, and poking their heads in several doors.
In the office of Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), they sat primly on a sofa and asked him about understaffed schools and improving health-care benefits. In the office of newly elected Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon), they chatted about her bill to expand immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses.
Soeharjono said she went door to door campaigning for Boysko, whose district is 21 percent Asian. She noted that the delegate lost her previous race by only 32 votes, but then triumphed in November. “So we really do count,” she said, beaming.
Senior Democratic figures in Virginia, including Sen. Timothy M. Kaine and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also have received strong support from Asian American voters and taken pains to court them. Former senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), whose wife is Vietnamese, won election in 2006 with widespread backing from that ethnic community.
“Both candidates and elected officials know they can’t ignore the Asian Americans in their regions anymore,” said Jason Chung, a former Republican activist in Virginia who is now on the staff of the Republican National Committee. With surging numbers and many uncommitted voters, he said, “these ethnic groups are all up for grabs.”
The activists’ day in Richmond was capped by a reception in the penthouse of a downtown bank, hosted by Oei’s council and several other groups. A stream of politicians and officials, including Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), made brief welcoming speeches. State Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) was especially effusive, saying, “We are extremely lucky that you all chose to come here. You are making a phenomenal contribution to the United States and Virginia.”
The only sobering moment came when Keam introduced Karen Korematsu, an activist from California whose late father legally challenged the 1942 presidential order confining most Japanese Americans to wartime internment camps.
“There are echoes of the same thing today,” she told the momentarily subdued crowd. “Some candidates want to round up Muslims and put them in concentration camps. It could happen again, and it is up to all of us to stand up.”
Oei was one of several leaders there who suggested that the current political animosity could galvanize Asian immigrants who have remained aloof from politics.
“The Muslim experience of today is definitely waking up this community,” Oei said. “In the past, it has been tough to confront our ‘model minority’ image, to get people to identify with the struggles of other groups. But now . . . people are beginning to see the parallels. This is not just about immigration. It is about all our rights.”