A Growing Diversity, 1993 to Present
More Asian Pacific Americans have served in Congress during the past two decades than in any comparable period. In fact, roughly 47 percent of all the APAs who have ever served in Congress arrived on Capitol Hill after 1992. The 18 APA Members who served in the House and Senate at the opening of the 115th Congress (2017–2019) constituted a larger APA cohort than in any prior Congress. Several factors have contributed to this trend.
Within the last decade, Asian Pacific Americans have become the fastest-growing legal immigrant group in America, surpassing persons of Hispanic origins.20 In large measure, this population growth is a legacy of the Hart–Celler Act. More recently, the demand for highly trained technical and medical workers has outstripped the United States’ ability to fill those jobs with its own citizens, prompting Congress to expand the annual limits on H-1B visas aimed at bringing such workers into the country. Overwhelmingly, these have been filled by Asian immigrant workers.
Another major source of Asian immigration into the United States in the latter half of the 20th century was that of the refugees from countries torn by civil strife, military conflicts, and other unrest. U.S. withdrawal from and the subsequent collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 led to successive, multi-decadal waves of Vietnamese refugees. One of these refugees was Anh (Joseph) Cao, who more than three decades after fleeing Saigon as a child, became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress. Other groups arrived via a similar path, including Cambodians, the Lao, and the Hmong people from Southeast Asia.
These various streams of immigrants and refugees have led to an expanding diversity of APA ethnicities on Capitol Hill: Jay C. Kim became the first Korean American elected to Congress, Hansen Clarke had Bangladeshi roots, and Charles Djou claimed both Chinese and Thai ancestry. Along with ethnic diversity, APAs also experienced a geographic diversification that reflected shifts in the general APA population. Whereas Hawaii and California as well as the Philippines had long been home to most APA Members of Congress from the previous eras, APAs in this era represented constituencies in New York City, New Orleans, Detroit, suburban Chicago, Virginia, Ohio, and Washington State.
Moreover, the number of APAs in Congress increased because of expanding representation for the United States’ Pacific territories. In the fall of 2008, the Northern Mariana Islands elected its first Delegate to Congress, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, who joined post-war Delegates representing Guam and American Samoa.
As more APAs served in Congress, they responded to the same impulse to organize and pool resources that had previously led women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans to create their own separate issues caucuses. In 1994 APA Members, led by Patsy Mink and Norman Mineta, formed the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in an effort to inject issues of common APA interest into the legislative agenda—among them immigration, civil liberties, and increased political participation. The caucus also sought to raise awareness about the contributions of APA Members within the institutions of the House and Senate. “We have to write our own history,” admitted Mineta, who served as the group’s first chairman.21
Better organization and growing numbers suggested an upward trajectory to this story and, by the end of the period, new trends and patterns emerged. As one generation passed from the scene, a new one took shape. When Congress convened for the opening of the 113th Congress (2013–2015) in January 2013, the name Daniel Inouye was not on the roll of Members in either the House or Senate for the first time since 1959. Inouye had passed away in December 2012, and only weeks later, his Hawaiian colleague Daniel Akaka, a congressional veteran of 35 years, retired. When the new Congress was sworn in, the most senior APA Member had only little more than a decade of House experience. But five new APAs had been elected to the House, and Hawaii’s Mazie K. Hirono, who had served several terms in the House, made history when she took the oath of office, succeeding Akaka and becoming the first APA woman Senator.
20See Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans.”
21David S. Broder and Kenneth Cooper, “Politics: Asian Pacific Caucus,” 22 May 1994, Washington Post: A10.