Hispanics and Asian Americans celebrate new electoral clout with inaugural galas, wish lists
By Pamela Constable and Luz Lazo,
Dave Kumar, a District lawyer whose parents immigrated from India before he was born, and Mauricio Martinez, a Salvadoran refugee who cooks for a catering service in Virginia, have one important thing in common. Both are part of the historic surge in electoral participation and activism by immigrant groups, who turned out for President Obama in record numbers last year and put the country on notice that their votes and voices count.
This weekend, Kumar and Martinez are among thousands of Hispanic and Asian American immigrants gathering in Washington to celebrate Obama’s reelection — and their own growing political impact. Among the flurry of inaugural events are glittering Latino- and Asian-themed galas, immigration policy workshops and citizenship fairs.
Several caravans of Latino voters and activists are crossing the country to join the festivities and promote legalization for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants, most of whom are from Latin America. Obama has already granted deportation relief to some young undocumented immigrants, and he has promised to seek sweeping immigration reform in his second term.
“People have woken up and realized the power they have through their participation in the election. They are saying, ‘We did it. We helped him win,’ ” said Jaime Contreras, 38, a labor union official who lives in Maryland and helped organize Latino service workers in pre-election volunteer activities. “I think the president knows he has to deliver for our community.”
In terms of numbers, the November election was a defining moment for Hispanics. A record 12.5 million of them voted, and an overwhelming 71 percent supported Obama. That turnout was crucial in battleground states such as Florida, Colorado and Virginia, and so was the support from an army of volunteers — some of them undocumented immigrants — who stuffed envelopes, knocked on doors and helped citizens register to vote.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, called the inauguration “a celebration of Latino participation in our democracy” — a chance not only to congratulate Obama but to “salute where Latinos have come in terms of our role in American politics.” By 2030, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the Latino electorate is expected to double.
Among Asian Americans, Obama was also heavily preferred, with 73 percent voting Democratic. But with a far smaller turnout at the polls — about 3.2 million, mainly in California — their impact on the election was more about other kinds of clout that reflect the high levels of education and affluence among legal immigrants from India, China, Korea and the Philippines.
Through targeted fundraising and sophisticated voter organizing, Asian American groups helped swing key districts for Obama in several states and elected Asian Americans to Congress in Hawaii, California, Illinois and New York. For the first time, activists from diverse Asian groups said they joined forces across geographic and ethnic lines, signaling a generational change in cultural and political attitudes.
“This did not happen by accident. A lot of us worked very hard, and people in our communities turned out overwhelmingly for reelection,” said Shekar Narasimhan, an Indian American entrepreneur and Democratic activist in Northern Virginia, who plans to attend a dozen inaugural events. “We need to celebrate because we think the president is going to listen to us now. We can’t be ignored. We are at the table.”
Both immigrant coalitions have planned high-profile events to showcase their new political clout. Asian Americans are hosting lavish “Pearl Gala” and “Indiaspora” balls at the District’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Latino groups have organized a celebrity-studded gala Sunday at the Kennedy Center featuring Eva Longoria, Marc Anthony and other stars.
Both groups are also using the inauguration as a platform to jump-start their demands for Obama’s second term, with policy forums and strategy sessions scheduled among the festivities. In some areas, they share common goals such as making sure their concerns are represented in economic and immigration policy, and pressing for high-level administration appointees of Hispanic and Asian origin.
In other areas, their priorities diverge significantly. Latinos are predominantly concerned about easing the plight of illegal immigrants, most of whom are from Mexico and Central America. Obama’s pledge to seek comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization for the undocumented, motivated many Latinos to help get out the vote — even if they were not permitted to cast one themselves.
“We have helped the president get reelected. Now it is up to him to keep his promise,” said Martinez, 34, who lives in the United States under temporary amnesty and dreams of being reunited with the wife and daughter he left in El Salvador. Although ineligible to vote, he said he campaigned many weekends for Obama and helped fellow Hispanics register. “I feel very fortunate to be in this historic event,” he said. “Now is the time. Now there’s that hope. ”
For Asian Americans, the majority of whom are middle-class immigrants in the country legally, the wish list is very different. It includes such issues as raising the number of visas for skilled workers, improving health care access for senior citizens, shortening wait times for overseas family members to immigrate, changing tax codes for small family businesses and allowing foreign-born students with advanced degrees to remain and work in the United States.
“We expect immigration reform in the second term — not only for traditional constituents but for Asian Americans too. This is not just a Hispanic issue,” said Narasimhan. “It is about attracting the best and brightest people to our shores and giving them a way to stay here and contribute. It is about understanding who the new American Democratic majority is, and how to make it sustainable.”
But Christine Chen, a Chinese American activist who helped organize the Pearl Gala at the Mandarin Oriental, said Asian Americans share some key concerns with Latinos. “We have more than 1 million undocumented community members, mostly grandparents, whose story hasn’t been told,” she said. “We have a lot of new political leaders, and after all the celebrating, we want to make sure people know what needs to be done when they go back home.”
Perhaps the most important result of the 2012 elections, activists said, was the realization among diverse and scattered immigrant communities — from Korean Americans in Virginia to Mexican Americans in California — that they have more in common than they thought, and more potential for political success when they join forces for change.
“People care about different things, but this time we reached out and connected and collaborated. It made all the difference,” said Kumar, a co-founder of South Asians for Obama and host of a jam-packed, high-energy inaugural reception Friday night in the District. “We have each other’s backs.”