by Bonny Tsang, 2010 APAICS Summer Intern
One of the perks of being an intern is going to many conferences for free! This week, one of the conferences I volunteered at was the Asian American Justice Center’s Advancing Justice Conference. The theme of the conference is “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders United in Strength.” In a keynote address, former Secretary Norman Mineta wisely said that it is not just having a seat at the table, but it is what we do at the table: “Don’t define in advance your seat at the table. We have no single seat at the table. We’re qualified to sit anywhere. We just have to make sure we don’t forget to bring who we are to the table.”
Secretary Mineta’s speech objective defined our activities for Friday. It was the first ever Asian Pacific American (APA) Advocacy Day on the Hill, where APAs made Congressional visits to their respective Members of Congress. It was here that I truly began to think about what it meant for Asian Americans to have a seat at the table. While we comprise almost 5% of the US population, we only make up 2% of the Members of Congress. Many of the remaining 98% have rarely heard from the Asian Pacific American constituents in their own districts!
Making Congressional visits are nerve-racking—you want to sound informed about the issues but learning all the details of the legislation is overwhelming. Luckily, we were supported by a designated team leader who could fill in the blanks for us! The pieces of legislation we discussed were the DREAM Act, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Reuniting Families Act, E-Verify and End Racial Profiling. I spoke with staffers from Congressman Joseph Crowley’s and Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. As a lifelong citizen of Queens, NY, I knew the area of both these districts very well and spoke confidently about how small businesses would be affected by this legislation.
Both of the staffers from Congressman Crowley’s and Congressman Ackerman’s offices were familiar with the issues about immigration but they commented how rare it was to see Asian Americans to be advocating for immigration reform, even in the New York region. Interestingly, about two-thirds of the APA community is foreign-born, meaning that we have even a larger stake in immigration reform than many others. Elected officials are willing to hear what Asian Pacific Americans have to say about immigration, or any other policy. We just have to make sure that we’re voicing them.
Asian Pacific Americans may not have the largest constituency, and even though we still have a low percentage of elected officials, we should still advocate for our communities. We must ask ourselves– even with a seat at the table, are we using it to the fullest potential? As Secretary Mineta says, we cannot forget to bring who we are to the table.
Bonny Tsang is a 2010 APAICS Summer Intern placed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is currently studying political sciences as a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania.