On December 15, 1900, two weeks into the second session of the 56th Congress (1899–1901) of the United States, one of the early Hispanic Members of Congress, Delegate Pedro Perea of New Mexico, escorted a tall man with a handlebar moustache into the well of the U.S. House of Representatives. Facing the marble rostrum, Robert W. Wilcox, the son of a New England sea captain and a Native-Hawaiian mother, took the oath of office as the first Delegate from the Territory of Hawaii. Wilcox, along with his wife, two children, and an aide, had just arrived that morning in Washington, DC, after a long transcontinental train trip. Quickly surrounded by well-wishers, the first Asian Pacific American (APA) Member of Congress and, in fact, the first individual to represent a constituency outside the continental United States, set to work.1
During the course of the next century, another 59 individuals of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry followed Delegate Wilcox into the U.S. Congress.2 Their saga spans vast distances, stretching from Manila in the faraway Philippine archipelago to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rooted in U.S. expansion into the Pacific Ocean, the story of APAs in Congress also was influenced by successive waves of immigrants and refugees who arrived on American shores. What follows is the story of how APAs moved from almost complete exclusion and marginalization to a rising influence at the center of American government.
In some respects, the story of Asian Pacific Americans in Congress is similar to those portrayed in the earlier volumes in this series: Women in Congress, 1917–2006; Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2008; and Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012. Like these other groups who were previously unrepresented or excluded, some APA Members eventually came to see themselves as “surrogate representatives” legislating for APA constituencies nationwide and far beyond the borders of their states, territories, or individual House districts, though this was far from a universal sentiment. And, as their numbers increased, their careers progressed in stages very similar to these other legislators, from pioneers to apprentices, to power brokers with their own issues caucus.3 Additionally, like the experiences of women, African-American, and Latino Members on Capitol Hill, the story of APAs in Congress overwhelmingly has been written in the U.S. House: of the 60 APAs who have served in Congress, just eight were Senators, five of whom first served in the House.4
From the start, foreign affairs, overseas expansion, colonial rule, and immigration policy exercised decisive influence upon Asian Pacific American experiences in Congress. The brief and lopsided American victory in the war with Spain in 1898 had long-lasting consequences, ultimately bringing the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa under the aegis of the United States. In the case of the Philippines, American troops had to first conquer Philippine liberation forces fighting the United States for independence in the bloody Philippine-American War from 1899 through 1902. A strong impulse to secure trade routes and overseas markets led the United States to annex Hawaii in 1898 as well. Each of these faraway territories eventually sent APA representatives to Congress. Since the mid-19th century, the twists and turns of U.S. immigration policy also have channeled the ebbs and flows of the APA storyline, from early efforts to secure cheap immigrant labor in the American West to many decades of exclusionary policies driven by xenophobia, to post–World War II reforms that lifted old barriers and spurred rapid APA population growth in the United States.
In some aspects, the APA experience most closely parallels that of Hispanic Americans in Congress. The majority of the earliest Hispanic Members hailed from lands acquired by war: the New Mexico Territory and what would become California after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War of 1898, which is now also called the War of 1898. These individuals served as “statutory representatives,” that is, Delegates or Resident Commissioners who possessed circumscribed legislative powers prescribed by federal statute, rather than by the Constitution. A majority of Hispanic Members who served through 1945 were statutory representatives.5
For the most part, the Constitution did not provide for such representation over the long term, leaving Congress to establish and manage these offices, whose powers were often strictly limited. Thus, like many of the Hispanic Americans who served with them, APA members employed legislative strategies different from those of most Representatives and Senators. Quite often these statutory representatives functioned more like envoys, ministers without portfolio, or public relations agents rather than lawmakers. Consequently, they often served as intercessors between their territorial governments and key congressional committees and select federal executive departments.
From Hawaiian Delegate Wilcox to the last Philippine Resident Commissioner, Carlos Peña Romulo, all 18 APA Members of Congress whose service fell within the five decades between the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II were statutory representatives. Most of these individuals represented far-flung locales that Congress and a long line of Presidents never contemplated incorporating fully into the Union. While in the period after 1990 far more APA Representatives and Senators have been elected than statutory representatives, 40 percent of all APA Members who have ever served on Capitol Hill (24 of 60) have been either Delegates or Resident Commissioners.
More so than the previous groups studied in this series, Asian Pacific Americans in Congress are unique because of their cultural diversity and many different national origins. This is, without a doubt, one of their defining features. Individuals whose roots extend to nearly a dozen Asian nations and Pacific Islands have served in Congress: Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Guamanian, Japanese, Korean, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Thai, Vietnamese, and other South Asians. They have represented more than a dozen different states and territories stretching from New York to the Philippines.
Since Asian Pacific Americans became the fastest-growing group in the United States, that trend may only accelerate. When the landmark Hart–Celler immigration bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Asian Pacific Americans accounted for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. By 2010 their numbers had grown to roughly 18 million (about 6 percent of the U.S. population) based largely on family reunification and employer sponsorships. Key to America’s changing demographics, Asians also recently overtook Hispanics as the largest percentage of legal immigrants arriving in the United States.6 Additionally, the 2010 Census revealed that the Native-Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations had grown to approximately 1.2 million people.7 By June 2016, as Asians continued to account for the largest number of immigrants, their mainland U.S. population surpassed 20 million, and the Pacific Islander population had grown to 1.5 million people.8
In 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau issued a list of the detailed groups covered by the terms “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders.” More than 40 subgroups were listed. Historians and social scientists who study Asian-Pacific American history and issues often observe that the term APA is, in reality, a catch-all, encompassing a wide range of peoples, cultures, and heritages that have very few shared distinguishing characteristics.9 As this volume will elaborate, that lack of shared identity and cohesion is evident in the legislative interests of this manifold group. [Table 1]
Table 1: U.S. Census Bureau’s Detailed Groups of Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders
Based on responses to the 2010 Census questionnaire.
Chinese (except Taiwanese)
|Micronesian||Guamanian or Chamorro
Papua New Guinean
Sources: The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population: 2010, C2010BR-12, prepared by Lindsay Hixon, Bradford B. Hepler, and Myoung Ouk Kim, U.S. Census Bureau (Washington, DC, issued May 2012); The Asian Population: 2010, C2010BR-11, prepared by Elizabeth M. Hoeffel, Sonya Rastogi, Myoung Ouk Kim, and Hasan Shahid, U.S. Census Bureau (Washington, DC, issued March 2012). Additionally, a large number of respondents checked the “Other Asian” or “Other Pacific Islander” on the Census questionnaire or wrote in a generic term such as “Asian,” “Asiatic,” or “Pacific Islander.”
1“Seat for an Hawaiian,” 16 December 1900, Washington Post: 13. Federico Degetau, the first Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner, had visited the Capitol a day before Wilcox but would not be sworn in until the opening of the following Congress in March 1901. Moreover, he initially had none of the floor privileges afforded Wilcox and other Delegates.
2As of July 1, 2017, the closing date of this publication.
3For a useful essay on surrogate representation within a larger discussion about “descriptive” versus “substantive” representation, see Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse, “Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress, ed. Eric Schickler and Frances E. Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 241–271. See also, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007): 1–7, and Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2008): 1–7.
4The proportions for the other three groups are similarly weighted toward House service. As of July 1, 2017, 325 women have served in Congress—287 in the House and 50 in the Senate (12 have served in both chambers); 153 African Americans have served in Congress—144 Representatives and 10 Senators (one has served in both chambers); and 116 Hispanics have served in Congress—110 in the House and nine in the Senate (three have served in both chambers).
5Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2013): 22–65. See for example, Abraham Holtzman, “Empire and Representation: The U.S. Congress,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 11, no. 2 (May 1986): 249–273. Twenty-six of the first Hispanic Members of Congress, from the very first, Joseph Marion Hernández of Florida in 1822, through World War II, were statutory representatives.
6Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans” (4 April 2013): 1–2, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/06/19/the-rise-of-asian-americans/ (accessed 11 July 2016).
7The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population: 2010, C2010BR-12, prepared by Lindsay Hixon, Bradford B. Hepler, and Myoung Ouk Kim, U.S. Census Bureau (Washington, DC, issued May 2012): 1–4.
8Jesse J. Holland, “Census: Asians Remain Fastest Growing Racial Group in US,” 23 June 2016, Associated Press, http://apnews.com/2dc421061f124a19a9b86fade21b097d/census-asians-remainfastest-growing-racial-group-us (accessed 1 July 2016).
9See for example, Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015): 3; Janelle Wong, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn, Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and Their Political Identities (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011): 9–12; Gary Y. Okihiro, The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001): xiv–xv. Policy consequences from overgeneralizing the APA community are discussed in Chieh-Hsin Lin, “Why Pacific Islanders are Dropping Out of School,” 17 August 2011, International Examiner (Seattle, WA): 8; Suzanne Gamboa, “Asian Groups, White House Seek Better Race Data,” 22 June 2013, Northwest Asian Weekly (Seattle, WA): 4, 16; Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991): 170.