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This Congress member wants Biden to hire more Asian Americans in government

“Unless they hear from us, we will remain invisible forever.”

US Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) speaking at a rally at the US Capitol for H.R.4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), the head of Congress’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, is laser-focused on getting more AAPI representation into government.

Most recently, Chu has pushed back on the lack of AAPI Cabinet Secretaries in the current administration, and the omission of AAPI members in a previous “unity task force” on immigration. While she welcomes cabinet-level appointees — Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden and US Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai — as well as the historic election of Vice President Kamala Harris, she emphasizes the importance of calling out the gaps that exist, too. (The Biden administration has previously said that it’s committed to building a team that “looks like America” including one of the most diverse cabinets ever.)

“When we raised our feelings about the lack of AAPI inclusion on immigration for the unity task force, and I said that 70 percent of AAPI’s are immigrants, many [people] said, ‘I did not know that,’” Chu told Vox. “So somebody has to know that. I know that.”

Chu, who became the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress in 2009, sat down with Vox to discuss the policies the caucus is most focused on right now and how it plans to keep on pushing the White House to consider AAPI candidates for judgeships and other roles.

“AAPIs have been seen by some as invisible. And that’s why it is so important for us to raise our voices,” she told Vox. “Unless they hear from us, we will remain invisible forever.”

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Li Zhou

One of my first questions is around the push that the caucus made around an AAPI Cabinet secretary. Could you talk about why that push mattered, and what message you saw the final outcome ultimately sending?

Rep. Judy Chu

We had thought there would be an AAPI Cabinet secretary put forth, and as each appointment was made, one by one, we realized that it was very possible that we were not going to get any AAPIs as Cabinet secretaries.

And it was a shock to us, because for the last 20 years, whether it was a Democratic or Republican administration, there was an AAPI cabinet secretary. In the Obama administration, there were three.

We tried to figure out what could we do to turn around the situation. And we appealed to the Tri-Caucus (which includes CAPAC, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus) to support us in our efforts. We [wrote] a letter and we were so proud to get 117 members of Congress to sign on, including seven senators. In fact, it was actually very moving because they signed on without hesitation, and said yes, that it’s just a matter of fairness and equality, to have that representation. So we submitted it, we fought hard, we actually think that we made an impact in that [California Labor Secretary] Julie Su was elevated to one of the top two being considered for the Labor secretary.

But ultimately, she did not make it and it was Marty Walsh that was appointed. So we were extremely disappointed by that. And let me just say, there are two Asian American appointees that are Cabinet level: Neera Tanden and Katherine Tai.

We are very proud of them too, but there is a difference between a Cabinet-level position versus a Cabinet secretary — the number of employees that you cover, the policies that you cover, the budget that you have. Also, you are in the presidential line of succession, whereas the Cabinet-level appointments are not. So this is not to say that the Cabinet-level positions are any less important. But we know that the Cabinet secretaries are extremely important for the future of this country and that we deserve to be there with our seat at the table where the decisions are being made.

I do want to tell you, though, that at least the Biden administration made an offer to Julie Su to be deputy labor secretary. And Julie wanted to make sure that she would have the ability to concentrate on her areas of expertise, which is low-wage workers, the undocumented, and wage theft. She had a talk, which the Biden administration arranged, with Marty Walsh. And she was very pleased to see that he was very open and enthusiastic about her role. That’s what led her to say yes to being a deputy secretary.

We are also proud of Kamala Harris as the first woman, Black, and Asian American Vice President, but the responsibilities that come with a Cabinet secretary are too great to ignore, and we actually feel we deserve to have representation at that level.

Li Zhou

One of the points that I’ve heard raised before is that AAPI lawmakers haven’t been included in policy conversations, including on issues like immigration. And I was wondering if this has been an experience that you’ve observed and how you’d like to see that potentially change with the Biden administration.

Rep. Judy Chu

We were extremely troubled when there was the formation of these Unity Task Forces for the Biden policy documents and one of the Unity Task Forces was the Immigration Task Force — there were eight slots in it, and not a single one was AAPI. And yet 70 percent of our [adult] population is immigrant. We actually have the greatest percentage of immigrants in our population, the next highest is Hispanics at 48 percent. It’s a huge issue for us, and for us not to be included was quite upsetting.

Li Zhou

How would you like to see the administration promote inclusion in these conversations moving forward?

Rep. Judy Chu

This is why they have to have AAPIs represented at the highest levels. Because it is those voices who are right there that will remind the decision-makers that AAPIs have to be included.

When we raised our feelings about the lack of AAPI inclusion on immigration for the Unity Task Force, and I said that 70 percent of AAPI’s are immigrants, many people said, “I did not know that.” So somebody has to know that. I know that. So if I were there, I would say that.

One million AAPIs are undocumented, 10 percent of the DREAMers are AAPI. I will continue to raise this to say that the pathway to citizenship is important to AAPIs, the remedies for DREAMers and TPS holders is important to AAPIs, as well as the family immigration policies that have held us back for such a long time.

Li Zhou

Do you think it’s just a matter of perception that has led to AAPI people not being included in these types of conversations? Or what do you see driving that omission?

Rep. Judy Chu

AAPIs have been seen by some as invisible. And that’s why it is so important for us to raise our voices. That’s why it was so important for us to speak out on the AAPI Cabinet secretary position. Even though it ruffled some feathers. Unless they hear from us, we will remain invisible forever.

Li Zhou

Could you talk about some of the top policy issues that the Asian American and Pacific Islander caucus wants to focus on and engage with the administration on moving forward?

Rep. Judy Chu

The first is Covid-19. There is so much work to do there. We know that AAPIs, particularly Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, have a higher infection and mortality rate in my home state of California. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have the highest death rate of any racial group. Let’s look at Filipino nurses, who are 4 percent of the nursing population but one-third of the deaths. And the fact that right now, very few AAPI communities are actually receiving the vaccine. Getting the vaccine and getting the proper testing and contact tracing as well as getting the necessary health care is a high priority for us.

And then there’s immigration. Immigration has been tops on our agenda for a very long time. And of course, I just talked about the issue with regard to undocumented people. But I want to say that our family-based and employment-based immigration have massive backlogs — that there are 4 million in the family-based immigration backlog, and we are 40 percent of that backlog. We are 80 percent of the employment visa backlog. As a result, families have been waiting years, if not decades, to reunite with their family members that are overseas.

Li Zhou

What is your reaction to how the administration has handled policies related to AAPI people so far?

Rep. Judy Chu

I felt that the executive order on racial equity last week as a very encouraging sign. First of all, just the fact that they were addressing racial equity was very encouraging. But the fact that they had a whole section on AAPIs was a great step forward.

And because they did that, there’s been more of a national conversation on what’s going on with AAPIs. They talked about the inequities with regard to Covid, and that there has to be guidance on best practices and cultural competency, language access, and other things for us to have in Covid-19.

But also, they talked about AAPI hate crimes. And this was truly refreshing because for four years, a president has targeted AAPIs. Over the last year, he was the one exacerbating the anti-Asian Covid-19 hate crimes by using racial slurs like “China virus” and “kung flu.” So to have a president actually saying that, that there has to be some work with the Department of Justice to address the anti-Asian xenophobia, was just so wonderful.

Li Zhou

When it comes to personnel appointments moving forward, including positions like judges, could you talk a bit more about what the caucus hopes to see on that front?

Rep. Judy Chu

We are continuing our efforts to have AAPIs appointed to key positions, such as deputy secretaries, under secretaries, the head of certain agencies. For instance, we were pleased, we actually did push Rohit Chopra. And now, he is the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That is so important because he is protecting American families and their economic health. So that’s the kind of appointment that we want to continue to see, including with our federal judges.

During the Obama administration, we did make a great deal of headway with that — in fact, the number of AAPI federal judges tripled. And so we hope to see that level of diversity with Biden administration.

Li Zhou

Campaigns have historically not prioritized AAPI voters, but I’m wondering if you could talk about why such prioritization matters and what you think was causing people to overlook the support of AAPI voters in the past?

Rep. Judy Chu

Yes, AAPIs in past campaigns were ignored or marginalized and seen as low-propensity voters. But what we see now is that AAPIs can make the difference in the battleground states. In fact, I was so encouraged that because of the newfound interest in campaigning amongst AAPIs, turnout for AAPI’s in the battleground states was 300 percent higher in the early voting in this campaign, and 68 percent of the vote went to Biden-Harris.

So basically, we went from being marginalized to the margin of victory. And we certainly could see that in Georgia, where the vote was so, so critical. I would say, a few decades ago, there were not many Asians in that state, but the population has grown dramatically. And what was really encouraging was that the Georgia organizers saw the AAPI vote as very critical. So they did concentrate on them and on their turnout. As a result, their voting turnout was 91 percent higher. And certainly in the November election, 30,000 of AAPI voters in Georgia were new voters. And that was so very exciting, because that meant that this was a newfound constituency that was encouraged to participate in the political process and made a difference in that state.

Li Zhou

There are more AAPI Republicans in Congress this term, and I was wondering if you think that’s a sign of GOP investment in the AAPI community?

Rep. Judy Chu

If you look at the APIAVote survey, it shows that AAPIs, like about 50 percent of AAPIs, feel that they haven’t been contacted by either the Democratic or Republican Party. They’re up for grabs. And the Republicans have exploited that by going into those communities and organizing very early. This is why we have raised their voices with the Democratic National Committee and other entities to make sure that we are the ones that are contacting the AAPI community first, because I think it will yield rich results.

We made a lot of headway in the November election. The things that we were pushing for were targeted mailers and in-language mailers, as well as advertising in the ethnic media and actual AAPI organizers in the areas of Asian concentration, for instance, actual AAPI organizers in places like Orange County, California.

Li Zhou

What it was like to be the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress and how have you seen AAPI representation grow since then?

Rep. Judy Chu

My grandfather came to this country with nothing, and started a small Chinese restaurant, and worked night and day and day and night. Of course, he was like all Chinese Americans, a victim of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would prevent Chinese Americans from becoming naturalized citizens until 1943, when it was lifted. And yet, two generations later, his granddaughter can become a member of Congress. And that is what I thought about when I was sworn in, on the floor of Congress, July of 2009.

Right now, we have the highest number of AAPI’s ever in our history. We have 21.

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