Asian influence

Look to Asians and Pacific Islanders to make a difference in future elections both nationally and in Michigan, says Doua Thor, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

But more unity and involvement are needed first.

"We have to work together. There's not enough of us to say, 'This is a Hmong issue, only a Hmong issue,'" Thor says. "We need to see our diversity as a strength, not a deficit."

Thor, who immigrated to Hamtramck nearly 30 years ago and then graduated from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, was the keynote speaker at last week's Asian Pacific American Leadership Summit held at the Westin Hotel in Southfield. About 100 people — students, professionals, activists and board members — attended the summit dinner.

Representing groups such as Council of Asian Pacific Americans, the Asian Pacific Islander Vote-Michigan and the Detroit Area Youth Project, the attendees offered their own observations and advice about some of the political dynamics about the Asian-American community.

"We fractionalize our people. We want to unite. A united voice is a much stronger voice. If we fractionalize to Chinese-Americans or Korean-Americas or Filipino-Americans, the voice won't be as strong," says Erwin Young, a sleep technologist at Beaumont Hospital, who attended the program.

But he wonders how to better make connections. After watching Republican presidential candidates on television, he felt marginalized.

"That scared me a little bit. I consider myself somewhat Republican, but there wasn't anyone there I could identify with," he says. "There has to be a better representation politically. Right now, we don't have a political face."

Asians and Pacific Islanders — both foreign- and U.S.-born — are about 2.3 percent of Michigan's population, according to the 2005 American Communities Survey from the U.S. Census. Chinese, Koreans and Filipions are the largest groups, followed by Vietnamese, Japanese and Hmong, according to the survey.

While just an estimated 53 percent of eligible Asians and Pacific Islanders are registered to vote in Michigan, those who are registered had about a 90 percent turnout in the 2004 general election, says Pabitra Benjamin, director of organizing and training with APIA Vote.

"It's a whole population that been under the radar and under-recognized," she says.

Still, Asian-Americans generally have high voter turnout, Thor says. In the 2004 presidential election, the APIA voting population was greater than the difference in candidates' statewide totals in seven states, according to the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes civic participation. Theoretically, Asian and Pacific Islander voters could have tipped those states' electoral college votes.

But are candidates speaking to "Asian" issues?

Sometimes, Thor says, but they're not making enough connections with Asians who, like others, are most interested in jobs and the economy, health care, immigration and education.

"I think that definitely a vital part of it. There aren't a lot of candidates who are addressing our issues," she says.

But Asian communities need to engage the candidates too, she says, with candidate forums and other communication. "Unless we ask them those questions, they won't be able to give answers for us to hear," she says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]