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How Asian Americans became a key White House constituency

The growing influence of Asian Americans in U.S. politics will be on full display Wednesday, as President Obama met with 15 lAsian American leaders this afternoon, and Vice President Biden addresses the Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies gala tonight.

How did Asian Americans get to be such a key political constituency? Both their votes and their donations have made a difference, especially in Obama's reelection bid.

Asians are quickly becoming a core Democratic group: Exit polling showed Obama and Biden won 73 percent of the Asian vote in 2012, up 11 points from 2008. This represents one of the biggest changes for any group in 2012, at a time when most voting groups shifted away from Obama in 2012. While Hispanics have captured the public's attention as one of the nation's most important voting blocs because of their larger numbers, Asian Americans are growing even faster as a share of the electorate.

Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies president Floyd Mori, one of the leaders who will meet with the president this afternoon, said such events reflect "how Asians have stepped up to the plate, particularly in some of the key states the president needed" last year. Those states included Virginia, Nevada and Ohio.

"That’s been recognized, finally," said Mori, a former Democratic state legislator from California. "It’s now becoming part of the conversation today."

Asian Americans have made major gains under the Obama administration. The president has doubled the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on the federal bench, from 8 to 19, which represents 7 percent of his confirmed judges. By contrast, this group made up just 1 percent of judges nominated by President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan, whose nomination is pending before the Senate, is the first South Asian American to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

And the White House has also focused on issues of specific concern to Asian Americans, such as translating workplace safety advisories into Asian languages for Asian Americans who face a higher risk of workplace accidents.

There is one area where Asian Americans have lost ground recently: They accounted for three members of Obama's first-term Cabinet, and now they're down to one, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Mori isn't complaining on that front. "It was much more than we had expected," he said of the first-term appointees, adding that the group is now pressing for more lower-level appointments to create a deeper bench for future Cabinet appointments.

The issue of immigration also has elevated the role of Asian Americans in the broader domestic policy debate. Biden will speak about immigration reform at Wednesday night's gala and pay tribute to the late senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HawaiI), who was one of his closest friends in the Senate.

Mori and others pressed Obama on the fact that the Senate immigration bill eliminates some categories of family visas and creates more slots for immigrants who have higher levels of education and valuable employment skills.

"Families are very important to Asian culture," Mori said. While they want preferences for family unification "restored and strengthened," he added, "we know it’s a very heavy lift."

Deepa Iyer, who is executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and chairs the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said the meeting with Obama and his senior staff was "really productive."

The president seemed open to looking into the issue of family reunification in the context of immigration reform, as well as how many Asian Americans have been targeted for hate violence over the past decade.

Iyer said that in addition to discussing how to make health care more accessible by translating forms into Asian languages, the group also urged Obama to appointing more Asian Americans to positions such as under secretary, deputy assistant secretary and general counsel, since the population is underrepresented at that level.

"We’re hoping to really shore up that bench of leadership," she said, noting those are the people "who really run agencies."

The group also raised an issue that speaks to their history: closing the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Mori suggested that indefinite detention today is as unacceptable as when the federal government interned Japanese Americans during World War II.

"The fact is we still have Guantanamo, we still have indefinite detention," he said. "This is something we hope they focus on a little more strongly."

Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.


Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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