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Asian Americans are one of Texas’ fastest-growing demographics. But they feel ignored by politicians

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Posted at 8:56 AM, Oct 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-15 09:56:26-04

Xin Huang is unhappy about the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and there are few things that could deter the Chinese American software engineer who lives in Flower Mound from voting this fall.

“The stakes are just too high right now,” he said. “I would crawl through broken glass to vote.”

Having started to tune in to politics during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, Huang has continued to be engaged since then, including canvassing for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 run for U.S. Senate. But throughout this process, he’s noticed how underrepresented Asian Americans are in national and local offices — and how both the Democratic and Republican parties have largely neglected them.

“Specific Asian outreach, I’ve seen little to none on either side,” he said. “I really hope we get more of a voice in American politics.”

Huang is not alone in feeling this way.

According to a recent report by Asian Texans for Justice, a nonpartisan organization focusing on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the state, around 80% of AAPI Texans surveyed say their interests “are not well represented in government.” Meanwhile, a July survey from a trio of national organizations, which focuses on Asian American voters across the country, found that “less than half of them have been contacted by either of the major parties” in the past year. And these trends have continued this election cycle, amid the rapid rise of the AAPI population and their voter turnout.

“We’re coming close to Election Day, and there’s a whole population you’re missing out on,” said Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice.

That’s not to say all political candidates are completely ignoring AAPI voters. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered the keynote address at a luncheon hosted by the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio. On Saturday, O’Rourke, who is running to unseat Abbott, is slated to speak at a rally in Houston’s Asiatown with several AAPI candidates.

And while Trieu feels encouraged that the two most high-profile candidates are putting in effort to engage the community before early voting starts on Oct. 24, she said more is needed from everyone.

Gov. Abbott gives keynote address at Asian American Alliance luncheon at NuStar Energy LP in San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2022
Gov. Abbott gives keynote address at Asian American Alliance luncheon at NuStar Energy LP in San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2022
Gov. Abbott gives keynote address at Asian American Alliance luncheon at NuStar Energy LP in San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2022
Gov. Abbott gives keynote address at Asian American Alliance luncheon at NuStar Energy LP in San Antonio, TX, October 13, 2022
Gov. Greg Abbott delivers the keynote address at the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio luncheon on Thursday. Many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Texas say politicians largely ignore them — during election season as well as during legislative sessions. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

“So much more still needs to be done to engage with voters every day and to address AAPI issues once they’ve been elected to office,” she said. “We’d love to see more meaningful voter engagement and listening to the needs of the community by all candidates.”

As Texas lawmakers debated bills narrowing voting access and restricting access to abortion last year, some legislators pointed to disproportionate effects the laws would have on people of color. But she recalled hearing little discussion regarding their impact specifically on AAPI Texans, despite that group constituting almost 20% of the state’s population growth in the past decade.

In 2021, Texas lawmakers also redrew the state’s political maps and split up several heavily Asian communities, especially in Fort Bend and Harris counties, effectively diminishing AAPI voters’ political power. While Texas Republicans have insisted that the redistricting process was “race blind,” many AAPI voters testified against the plans and some subsequently responded by joining the legal fight against the new maps.

“It was extremely disheartening,” Trieu said. “Folks were feeling blatantly ignored in the redistricting process.”

The federal trial for the case has been delayed and will not affect the upcoming elections. But Trieu believes these challenges, along with the Stop Asian Hate movement which grew amid rising racist attacks against Asian Americans, will motivate the community — especially younger voters — to turn out this fall.

“I really think it’s going to be a community effort led by the young,” she said.

A growing, motivated population

AAPI voters and organizations who spoke to The Texas Tribune noted several reasons this gap in political attention might have persisted. But they added that governments and political candidates should heed the demographic trends and begin engaging with what is a fast-growing part of the electorate.

Trieu attributed candidates’ lack of outreach and representation to the longstanding idea that AAPI voters are apathetic. But she pointed out that almost two-thirds of AAPI Texans are “highly motivated” to vote this year, based on her organization’s report. And while this is still a lower rate than the general Texan population’s motivation level, the state has also been seeing major growth in Asian votes in recent years, including a 71% jump — or a gain of 101,000 ballots cast — between 2016 and 2020.

On the other hand, Huang noted that AAPI Texans — despite their growth — still make up only a small part of the state population. According to nonprofit AAPI Data, such voters command just under 5% of the electorate in Texas this year.

“From a cost-benefit analysis, that might be the reason why politicians don’t seem to really want to spend a disproportionate amount of resources trying to reach a relatively small number of voters,” he said.

But with the GOP attracting an increasing number of Hispanic voters in recent years, the AAPI community could offer new avenues for the Democratic Party, said Nabila Mansoor, executive director of progressive organization Rise AAPI and president of Asian American Democrats of Texas.

“There’s so much growth happening in Texas that you can’t outrun it,” Mansoor said.

Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice (ATJ), who produced a report researching Asian voters, photographed on Tuesday, Oct 11, 2022 in Austin. Asian communities are growing rapidly in Texas, but they are still feeling left out of the political process . (May-Ying Lam for The Texas Tribune)
Lily Trieu, interim executive director of Asian Texans for Justice, at her office on Tuesday. The organization produced a report researching Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, finding that almost two-thirds of AAPI Texans are “highly motivated” to vote this year. Credit: May-Ying Lam for The Texas Tribune

Still, the AAPI community is not a monolith. According to AAPI Data, the top Asian ethnicities in Texas by population are Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Pakistani. Meanwhile, the community is mixed when it comes to political affiliations. According to Asian Texans for Justice’s report, just over 40% of AAPI voters are Democrats while around 60% are split in half between Republicans and Independents. There are also different voting patterns within each ethnic group. For instance, while Indian Americans lean toward Democrats, Vietnamese Americans have historically aligned with Republicans — though there has been a growing shift especially from the younger generation in the latter group.

“It does take some work on the part of political parties to really understand what the AAPI community wants and needs, but I think our community deserves that,” Trieu said.

Common interests

Despite this diversity, however, Trieu pointed out that the Asian Texans for Justice report does note several key concerns AAPI voters share.

Since the state’s near-total ban on abortion and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, abortion access has grown as an important issue for many voters. Beyond access, Chanda Parbhoo, a progressive organizer and founder of South Asian Americans for Voter Education + Engagement + Empowerment, said the need to navigate new rules and restrictions has created a lot of concerns for medical professionals and students, many of whom are South Asian. The confusion about what treatments are still legal for pregnant patients could also spur some to leave Texas or choose other careers.

“Physicians were coming up to me and saying, ‘Who do I need to talk to? Because I don’t feel safe being a physician.’ They are all feeling very vulnerable and really uncertain,” she said.

Education is another key issue. Parbhoo said parents are concerned about the impact that the growing politicization of critical race theory — though it is not actually being taught in Texas public grade schools — will have on the quality of their children’s education.

“People are really afraid of what the loud voices are talking about and what [they are] turning education into,” she said. “Our communities flock to really good school districts. They want to remain factual.”

Public safety is also a hot-button topic, with gun reform being a big priority, according to the Asian Texans for Justice report. At the same time, voters who spoke with the Tribune like Filipino American Mark Sampelo also highlighted the need to ensure continued resources for AAPI individuals and businesses, as well as further education for police on the issue of anti-Asian hate. Texas saw the fourth-highest number of anti-Asian incidents logged between March 2020 and February 2021, according to nonprofit organization Stop AAPI Hate.

A report researching Asian voters produced by Asian Texans for Justice (ATJ), photographed on Tuesday, Oct 11, 2022 in Austin. Asian communities are growing rapidly in Texas, but they are still feeling left out of the political process . (May-Ying Lam for The Texas Tribune)
A copy of the report researching AAPI voters produced by Asian Texans for Justice. The report found that around 80% of AAPI Texans surveyed say their interests “are not well represented in government.” Credit: May-Ying Lam for The Texas Tribune

“Although what we’ve seen in the media is really tough to see, it’s a very small percentage of what’s going on,” he said. “So [we] just want to make sure moving forward that there’s commitment and there’s accountability that our communities will be safe.”

And with AAPI Texans being “significantly more likely” to be immigrants compared to the general state population, immigration is a major area of interest for some voters who spoke with the Tribune. Huang said the H-1B visa program for highly skilled workers was a big concern for him and his wife before she recently became an American citizen. And Sampelo, who works with various Filipino organizations including Pilipino American Unity for Progress, said it’s important to support the tago ng tago population, a Tagalog term for undocumented immigrants.

“These folks are being taken advantage of in ways that we may not even recognize,” he said, describing a case in which 70 Filipino teachers, along with many from Latin America, were tricked into coming to Garland Independent School District through a fraudulent visa program. Victor Leos, former GISD human resources director and a central figure in the scheme, pleaded guilty in the fraud case in 2017.

But ultimately, the issues that matter most in the upcoming elections are things that politicians are already well versed on: inflation and economic recovery.

“Everything is going up, and that is a worry for everybody,” said Anthony Nguyen, president of the Texas Asian Republican Assembly of Austin.

And with AAPI Texans trending relatively moderate on both sides, voters and organizers said there is still a centrist population up for grabs if major parties actually engage them.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our politics are devoted to polarizing issues,” Nguyen said. “You can’t change the minds of the base voters. But in the middle, you can change because they care about surviving day to day, not about extremist issues that both sides have.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/14/asian-american-pacific-islander-texas-voters-2022/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.