Hispanics were not the only ethnic group shedding support for the Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.
Democratic backing among Asian-Americans declined sharply in the 2014 cycle, according to exit polls, suggesting President Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration policy might have wounded his party in the eyes of a voting bloc that has sided strongly with Democrats for the better part of a generation.
While some of the shift almost certainly reflects the historically low Asian-American turnout in midterm cycles, there’s also a sense among advocates that the delay might have been a contributing factor.
Margaret Fung, the executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it was hard to say whether there was “unhappiness” with the president’s delay among the Asian-American community because of the historically low midterm turnout, as well as general support for Democratic immigration policies.
But she was quick to note that those voters wanted to “hold accountable” the president “after promises that have been made that something will happen,” adding that there was underlying “concern” Obama might not move as aggressively as some are hoping.
“I hope he goes as big as he needs to go, and that it is actually as expansive as it should be — because the fact is, this is only temporary,” Fung said.
The immigration issue hasn’t been overlooked by Asian lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) has been urging Obama to take executive action for most of the year.
CAPAC’s chief concerns revolve around family and employer-based visas. The State Department estimated last year that roughly 40 percent of those in line for family visas are from Asia, particularly Southeast Asian countries like China, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam, while more than 80 percent of those backlogged under the employer-based system are Asian.
“Our communities need executive action that ends long separations of families currently stuck in visa backlogs, protects the parents of “Dreamers,” and expands work authorization to broad sectors of aspiring Americans,” Chairwoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said Friday. “These are bold and legal options the president can take to quickly end the pain and fear of separation in immigrant communities.”
There is some cause for Democrats to be concerned.
Although Asian-American voters switched their support back and forth between Democrats and Republicans through most of the Clinton administration, they’ve sided squarely with the Democrats since 1998 — until this year.
Asian-Americans backed Republicans 50 percent to 49 percent at the polls this cycle, according to a compilation of national exit polls. That’s a sharp contrast from 2012, when 73 percent favored Democrats, and from 2010 — the last midterm cycle — when the Democrats’ advantage was 59 percent to 41 percent.
The figures have prompted Republicans to celebrate while putting Democrats on the defensive.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), head of CAPAC’s immigration taskforce, suggested Monday that the polls are flawed.
“The Asian-American Community has always been strongly Democratic, and I don’t believe that has changed at all,” Honda said in an email. “The polls that people are citing used very small samples during a midterm election that had a historically low turnout.”
Still, Honda stressed the importance of sweeping immigration reforms to the Asian community, saying Obama “needs to take steps towards fixing the problem now.”
“I believe such an order would even further strengthen the ties between the [Asian and Pacific American] community and our party,” he said.
In 2013, the White House prepared a report highlighting specifically how immigration reform could benefit Asian families. In addition to addressing the backlog issue and status of those in the United States illegally, the White House noted that petitioners from India and China represented a staggering 72 percent of the H-1B visa program, which allows high-skilled foreign workers to come to the U.S.
During a town -hall meeting earlier this summer in California, Obama specifically floated the idea of expanding the H-1B visa program through executive action. Technology companies have suggested that the government only could count heads of households — and not their spouses and children — against visa caps to effectively expand the program.
“I will use all the executive authority that I legally have in order to make fixes in some of the system,” Obama said. “And that includes potentially making the H-1B system that is often used by tech companies and some of the other elements of our legal immigration system more efficient, so we can encourage more folks to stay here.”
The White House declined to comment Monday, ahead of the president’s announcement, of what his executive orders will entail. But officials have said Obama will be presented with final recommendations for executive action in the coming days, with action coming before the end of the year.
Erin Oshiro, the immigration and immigrant rights’ senior staff attorney at
Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, stressed that the Asian-American community had “a lot at stake in the immigration debate,” noting that it represents about 10 percent of the community living in the U.S. illegally.
She suggested that limiting the deferred action program to only the family members of current citizens or people already participating would be “disappointing.”
“We really hope that relief will be as broad as possible,” she said.