Asian-American, Immigrant & Republican, Too
In many ways, the town of Diamond Bar is the future that liberals want. So why do its residents keep voting for Republicans?
“There’s an old adage,” California state senator Ling Ling Chang tells me, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
Chang is explaining why she — a Taiwanese-American immigrant whose family arrived when she was just three-years-old — is a Republican. “Democrats give out fish. Democrats tend to keep people chained to government handouts. It’s not like Republicans are against every social program out there. But Republicans tend to lift people up.”
It’s a cliche I’d heard before, and one that Chang is sticking to despite the fact that it’s an especially hard argument to make now, of all times. It’s not just the threat of a shrinking social safety net under President Trump, although that’s certainly part of it. More generally, there’s the fact that, despite a booming economy, the spoils of that wealth are increasingly going only to a select few. “It doesn’t matter if you know how to fish when there are only minnows to be caught,” I tell her, while thinking about all the other things that have handicapped foreign-born, non-Caucasian women like the both of us.
But she doesn’t want to hear it. In Chang’s world, the only meaningful antidote to inequality is more jobs for everyone, which is what Republicans — with their tax cuts and regulation rollbacks — promise to bring. Racism is beside the point: "A lot of low-income Caucasians have said to me that they’re not doing very well. A lot of people are being left behind, regardless of skin color,” she says. She adjusts the charm bracelet she’s worn since the beginning of the lunar year, a collection of golden zodiac characters that have brought her good luck and victory, despite it being one of the unluckiest years for her and others born in the Year of the Dog. "Look, I get it, especially with an ‘ethnic’ name like mine,” she continues. “Some people have said to me that if you had a name like Linda, it would make a world of a difference. It’s sad that some people see things this way. But it’s Republicans and Democrats who do.”
Chang shrugs the Linda thing off as unfortunate; she doesn’t want a pity party. What she wants, she says, is for more people to have what’s she had growing up in Diamond Bar: A breeding ground for the American Dream.
Diamond Bar is an upper middle class suburb about 30 minutes east of Los Angeles. It’s lined with two-story homes, copacetic strip malls, and roadways so smooth, you might forget that you’re actually driving — not floating. But it’s not as cookie-cutter as just that. The convenience station attached to the gas station next to the high school advertises its boba station, not Slurpees. The stock photos printed on a banner advertising its local dance studio features KPop and Chinese Folk dances alongside ballet and hip-hop. The houses for sale at the local realtor boast multi-million dollar homes with double-lion head gates and bamboo hedges.
Diamond Bar is a minority-majority city. More specifically, it’s an Asian-American town. According to the 2010 census, of the 55,000 people who live in Diamond Bar, 53% of the population are Asian — most of whom are first- or second-generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants. In fact, nearly half of Diamond Bar is foreign-born. For Chang who grew up in Diamond Bar, served on its city council, and now represents it in the California state senate, the idea of a minority-majority cookie-cutter suburb is as normal and American to her as apple pie.
Parked on the edge of a strip mall between a dumpling shop and a medical clinic advertised exclusively in Korean, I thought about what John Kelly or Stephen Miller would think about this suburb. If I squinted, Diamond Bar was the same as the majority-white communities I grew up in in Nebraska, Minnesota, and Alabama. But this was a suburb constructed for the ease of its Asian constituents, who spoke Asian languages, and had Asian tastes. If I had grown up in these city limits as it looks like today, what kind of time and energy could I have saved if I hadn’t spent the formative years of my life trying to insist that the shape of my eyes and the accents of my parents weren’t something to be embarrassed by?
In many ways, Diamond Bar is the future that liberals want, save for the fact that it keeps electing Republicans. Diamond Bar’s residents are represented by Republican state representatives as well as a Republican Congressman, Ed Royce, and have been, with a few short Democratic interludes, for years.
Earlier this year, though, Rep. Royce announced his retirement. With the well-liked incumbent stepping down, plus the fact that Senator Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton carried Diamond Bar and the surrounding suburbs in 2016, the area is now a must-watch battleground in the midterms.
On the ballot to replace Royce this November are Korean-American former Republican state assemblywoman Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros, a former shipping and manufacturing manager who turned to politics after winning $266 million in the lottery a month after he was laid off from his job. Per the latest polls, Kim is enjoying a slight edge, despite the Democrats’ best efforts (President Obama has endorsed Cisneros) and a growing distaste — even in conservative Southern California — for the President.
That Kim is currently leading shouldn’t be a surprise: Southern California has long been a lonely patch of red in a sea of blue. And the Asian-Americans who live there have likewise been reliable Republican voters.
I think about this as I sit across from Chang on a rooftop in Downtown Los Angeles. The number of similarities between our two childhoods are uncannily similar. She tells me stories that could have been ripped out of my grade-school diaries. But somehow along the catalog of shared experiences, we’ve come to drastically different conclusions about what it all meant.
“People call me unicorn because they think Republicans are old white men. But look, I’m an immigrant, a younger Asian-American woman, and I’m a Republican,” she ticks them off on her fingers. “They’re all related.”
For many Asian-American immigrants like Chang who settled in this part of California, conservatism is the logical conclusion of their immigrant experience. She is emblematic of a wave of Asian immigrants who came to the United States following a series of policy changes beginning in the late ‘60s that gave preferred status to people with specific professional skills and a high level of education. “Generally speaking, Asian American immigrants — even if they came as refugees with very little resources — often brought education with them,” says Beth Lew-Williams, a historian and professor of Asian-American history at Princeton University. “[America] is getting the most educated, if not the most wealthy. That affects the politics of the next generation.”
Chang’s family left Taiwan for better economic opportunities in the United States in the ‘80s, and settled in Southern California, first moving into a “tiny fire-hazard” of an apartment around Monterey Park before relocating to Diamond Bar for its competitive school district. Chang’s father was a dentist; her mother was a homemaker. Neither parent paid much attention to politics, though Chang found out later that they were both fans of Reagan. Chang’s not sure why, but she remembers both of them being impressed by his pro-immigrant stance.
Initially, her political career horrified her parents. “They understood politics to be really nasty and contentious,” she says, referring to the literal brawls that members of the Taiwanese parliament would get into. “They didn’t know why I would want that kind of life, especially as a woman.” When she beat a 21-year incumbent during her election to the Water Board early in her political career, her parents saw that a Taiwanese woman in politics in America was not the same as a Taiwanese woman in politics in Taiwan. “When I won, they were really proud,” she remembers. Her political ideology — teaching men how to fish — squarely draws from what she feels like ensured the success of her family.
The same rings true for other Asian-American women I spoke with: “We literally fled a place where we didn’t have any rights, and there was no opportunity. To live in a country where anything was possible was a dream," explains Tina Tran, who is now a Silicon Valley tech executive. Her family fled Vietnam on a boat to Malaysia in the mid-’70s where they lived for a year in a refugee camp before being granted asylum to the United States. She immigrated to Southern California when she was a child.
Tran’s parents were educated, middle-class people in Vietnam — her father was a lawyer — but that meant little when they came to America. “We were on welfare. We obviously didn’t speak the language. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment with four of us sleeping wall-to-wall. My father worked as a gardener and my mom was a data-entry clerk,” Tran says. “Assimilating [the kids] quickly was important to my family: It was survival. It was very much a part of the dream to be fully accepted as an American and treated well.”
Assimilating meant excelling in school. Every cent was saved towards pulling the family out of poverty, to buy a house, raise their stature in the community, and — by Tran’s account — to make her and her brother better marriage material. “My parents were committed to us doing well. They didn’t have any extracurricular activities that were not us — we were it,” she remembers. “I’m so grateful that I’ve come and lived a life with that immigrant lens that my life is a privilege because of other people’s sacrifice, and to take responsibility for your own actions and choices. That’s a very conservative way of thinking.”
Young Kim, the 39th’s Congressional candidate, says almost the exact same thing: “My parents didn’t know a word of English. I found myself taking my parents to the DMV and having to translate on their behalf as they struggled to apply for driver’s licenses,” Kim recalls. “Their education level was elementary school. But that’s the main reason that they came — to seek the economic opportunities to provide for the educational opportunity for their young kids. ”
These stories about immigrant families pulling themselves up from the bootstraps are hardwired into the American mythology that attracted immigrant families in the first place. And so, when Republicans tell Asian-Americans that their successes are their own and without bound, and Democrats tell them that their successes are natural consequences of factors outside their control and should thereby have its limits (through taxes, affirmative action, or otherwise), it’s not hard to see why some would subscribe to a conservative point of view.
That said, this rightward trend among Asian-American voters could very well be on its way out: Asian-American voters may have historically leaned more Republican two decades ago, but they are increasingly identifying as Democrats. What’s even more significant, though, is that 40% of Asian-Americans do not align themselves with either party, according to a report put together by APIAVote, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and AAPI Data.
These numbers are made even more significant by the fact that Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial demographic, poised to double in size by 2040. Presently, Asian-Americans only make up about 4% of the electorate; voter turnout is historically low due to language barriers and a lack of outreach from major parties. But the rush to change this is becoming urgent as the major parties realize the untapped potential,.“Asian Americans have the opportunity to grow into a really powerful force. Both parties are trying to fight for that vote of unaffiliated voters,” says Jess Ng, a veteran of statewide presidential campaigns for Republicans, and a senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs, a major political/corporate strategy and PR firm. “Asian Americans are not a monolithic voting bloc. They come from different countries with very different backgrounds.”
“The way that [Asian-American immigrant communities] put together their issues may not perfectly fit with either party. What’s distinct about them is that people come to this country with their own set of politics, but they also know that they have a lot to learn,” adds Christian Phillips, a professor at The Ohio State University and author of Nowhere to Run, about how immigrant communities affect politics. “What we’re seeing is that they don’t fit very well with either party. That’s in large part because they see themselves as wanting to fund education, but also wanting to build a business for themselves. Those two things can go together — because, why not? They’ve had to define politics for themselves because there’s not a lot of outreach to these communities from either party.”
If that’s true, then a place like Diamond Bar may be a sign that there is a desire among immigrant voters for a more nuanced politics. That the area continues to split between Republicans on the local level but Democrats on the national could foretell of the potential of a heretofore untapped voting bloc, and a shift to come as political parties work harder to attract these voters and galvanize participation.
Indeed, Chang and Kim’s brand of Republicanism is not the same brand of conservatism that’s currently coming out of the White House, especially when it comes to immigration. To them, the White House’s strident anti-immigration views are unhelpful and unrealistic. “I don’t support that rhetoric coming out that says all undocumented individuals are criminals,” Kim says, adding that she supports a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers,” those brought here as undocumented minors and know of no other home than the United States. “Republicans support people coming here legally to pursue the American Dream like my family did. What we are against are individuals who just come here, hide out, and somehow eventually you’re going to get your legal status — that includes many Asians, not just people from Mexico or Guatemala.” Likewise, Chang sees streamlining family-based immigration — a bugaboo for the Trump administration, which frequently slams “chain migration” as a security threat — as a crucial part to the puzzle. “There has to be immigration reform because I’ve heard from families that they’re waiting 20 years to bring the rest of their families. That’s ridiculous. We need a fix.”
And yet, despite their disagreements with the current leaders of their party, they’re still betting that the Republican party is the way forward. To liberals, it might seem counterproductive. There’s the travel ban, the attacks on “chain migration” to reunify immigrant families, the end of DACA, the Southern border wall, and toxic rhetoric about “shithole” countries. Trump has even restricted the availability of the notoriously competitive H1B visas, an employment-based visa awarded by lottery to those with a Bachelor’s degree and specific skills in specialty professions like biotechnology, journalism, or law. Six in 10 applications are rejected. Last year, 89% of all H1-B visas that were filed were by Asians (of those, 84% were from India).
One of the only things that seems to explain why Republican Asian-Americans still believe that the Republican party is better equipped to fix the immigration system is the tribalism that Trump is so good at stoking. While many liberals believe that minorities are immune to racist ideas and harbor affinities for other minority communities through some shared understanding, that is often not the case. In a twisted way, Trump’s success with certain minority groups stems from the ways he’s openly and harshly antagonized other minority groups (a strategy that some have said will become more entrenched by the 2020 presidential election).
Here’s how it plays out in relation to immigration: Because family-based immigration is capped per country, and H1-B visas are issued by lottery, the perception can be that the cards are stacked against Asian immigrants. No matter how highly skilled they are, how long they’ve been in America, how much in taxes they’ve paid, and how small of a burden they’d be on the system — they’ll have to wait in a line that doesn’t seem to be moving. Meanwhile, they see asylum-seekers at the borders and believe that it’s these immigrants who are cutting in front, without recognizing that the amount of asylum seekers allowed have little bearing on the caps placed on the number of family- and employment-based immigration.
“Most Chinese-Americans have come to this country legally, and the process was very tough,” says Esther Lu, a 24-year-old Chinese American who works for the California Republican Party. “There are many stories of people who waited 10 years 20 years to do it the right way. [Trump’s hard line policies are] something Chinese Americans feel is fair because they have this experience with themselves and their families.”
Compound that with the very real phenomenon that the fastest track to the American Dream — education — feels under attack, and you have your answer. While many Americans consider prestige university admissions policies as an issue that’s barely relevant to their lives, the idea that this door may shut is not only threatening to many Asians-Americans in practical ways, but also symbolic of the idea that Asians will always be punished for doing well even if they play by the rules. Taking away access to a resource as meaningful as prestige education can galvanize people to engage in politics as a single-issue voter. If you believe that affirmative action is the biggest obstacle getting in the way of your child’s success, you may cast your vote for Republicans who, like President Trump, believe that affirmative action unfairly punishes their own. To that end, Trump’s Department of Justice is backing a lawsuit against Harvard University alleging its affirmative action policies discriminated against Asian-American students, unfairly categorizing “Asian personalities” as a disadvantage.
All of these complicated issues will play out in Diamond Bar this November when Kim and Cisneros face each other for a congressional seat. But a factor that cuts through it all is that Asian-Americans tend to vote for candidates who are Asian, too. In a 2016 poll conducted by APIA, voters who knew Kamala Harris was Asian were more likely to vote for her if they didn’t, regardless of political party affiliation.
“At the end of the day, I feel like they’re going to vote for candidates that they can identify with. I am a candidate who understands the value of education, who understands the importance of a strong economy, who just understands,” Kim says. “I speak different languages and am part of the international community. These are things that [voters] are familiar and comfortable with.”
Come November, we'll see if Kim is right.