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  1. Florida Politics

As America's fastest-growing immigrant group, Asians find a growing voice

Mindy Dao, 56, who runs a cosmetics shop in Falls Church, Va., thought more of the area’s Asian-Americans would vote for Mitt Romney, like she did.
Mindy Dao, 56, who runs a cosmetics shop in Falls Church, Va., thought more of the area’s Asian-Americans would vote for Mitt Romney, like she did.
Published Apr. 27, 2013

ANNANDALE, Va.

It is the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States, sweeping in cultural, political and demographic changes. • Hispanics? No. • The wave flows from China, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines and India — Asians who are asserting themselves economically, scrambling elections and have much at stake as Congress begins to tackle immigration reform. • "It's been building for years but we have a place at the table," said Shekar Narasimhan, an Indian-American entrepreneur in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. "We can't be ignored anymore. It feels terrific."

Few areas better illustrate the boom than Virginia's Fairfax County, a magnet of quality schools and well-paying jobs. More Asians live here than Hispanics or African-Americans, a shift seen through the kaleidoscope of Korean barbecue restaurants, Vietnamese and Chinese groceries, Asian spas, churches and law offices springing up in Annandale, Falls Church and Centreville.

Amid the cultural signposts is a growing political power.

Asian-American voters played a role in both of President Barack Obama's narrow wins in Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy that for decades was staunchly Republican. The trend is echoed by emerging populations in other swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Nevada.

Bill Clinton managed only 31 percent of the Asian vote nationally in 1992; Obama doubled that in 2008. Last year, he received 73 percent, two more percentage points than his support from Hispanics. Asians are still only 3 percent of the national electorate but that is expected to double by 2040.

Together, Hispanics and Asians underscore the changing face of America and a severe problem for a GOP reliant on white male voters, whose share of the electorate is declining.

If the trend toward Democrats continues, "it's pretty easy to do the math," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. "This is a big, big deal."

Although Hispanics make up the bulk of the 11 million undocumented residents in the United States, more than 1 million are Asians.

But Asians have been largely overlooked in the immigration debate.

"There is this perception of Asian-Americans that we're this quiet, hard-working community. But we can't be invisible. There are real people who are impacted and suffering and are relying on immigration reform as well," said Son Ah Yun, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, who joined an immigration rally outside the U.S. Capitol on April 10.

Of particular concern is how the backlog of visa applications disproportionately affects Asians, with wait times exceeding 20 years. Four out of the five top countries on the backlog are Asian.

"I see every day families torn apart, in my work and with my friends," said Beth Phillips, 26, who was born in Korea and lives in Northern Virginia. "Some are considering going back to their country because not everyone can get over here."

• • •

Immigrants from Korea and Vietnam started arriving in Northern Virginia in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. The population took off in the past two decades. Indians are a large part of the new wave, drawn to a startup tech industry. Koreans and Vietnamese, meanwhile, have embraced an entrepreneurial spirt and are driving the growth of small businesses.

"Seventeen years ago there were no Asians," said Samson Samson, a Pakistani immigrant, standing outside the Papa John's Pizza in Fairfax where he works. "Now they are everywhere. When you knock on the door, Asian people come."

Across the parking lot, the Super H Mart is buzzing. Shelves are packed with Asian noodles, seaweed, exotic mushrooms, kimchi, pickled radish, squid. Newspaper boxes sell the Korean Times and other publications, thick with ads for everything from dental offices to fur coats and apartments. Glossy Verizon inserts are in Korean, not English. Churches advertise with CDs filled with sermons in Korean.

"There's no difference from Korea. I can have all the food I want," said Kelly Park, a senior at Paul IV Catholic High School across the street. Her parents sent her over from Korea because a friend in Virginia told them about the good schools. Park fretted about fitting in but her school is full of other Koreans.

"I feel at home," said Park, who will attend George Washington University in the fall.

Virginia's Asian population grew by 68 percent over the past decade. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up nearly 6 percent of the overall state population but 17.5 percent of the population in Fairfax, about 190,000 people.

The cultural changes are obvious but the growth is having a powerful effect on politics, a key in local elections and a factor in Obama's victory in November.

"Our numbers may still be small but that's the margin with which a candidate wins or loses," said Ilryong Moon, a lawyer in Annandale. "A voter here in Northern Virginia makes a difference for the entire commonwealth and Virginia makes a difference for the entire country."

Moon arrived from South Korea with his parents in 1974, went to Harvard and William and Mary, and began a law career. But he pushed aside the thought of entering public service, cowed by a sense of inferiority. Only after his children were born did he change his mind. "I wasn't a good role model."

He ran for the Fairfax School Board in 1995, becoming the first Asian-American to win office in Virginia, presaging a growing political power. In 2009, Fairfax minted the first Asian-American in Virginia's House of Delegates, and earlier this month voters here elected the first Asian-American judge in state history.

"People look up to me, both Asians and non-Asians," said Moon, 55, a slight man with glasses and a warm face. "They want to see if he really performs, if he's on par. That's a challenge, and a motivation."

As he celebrates the success of the community, Moon also sees a broken immigration system: families divided because of the visa backlog and undocumented immigrants who are unable to qualify for student loans and opt against college.

"It's destroying the futures and dreams of young people who are in this country for no fault of their own," Moon said. "You see some of those going into criminal activities or working menial jobs."

• • •

During a sparsely attended news conference before the Washington, D.C., immigration rally earlier this month that drew tens of thousands of Hispanics, a handful of Asian-American speakers called attention to the visa backlog and blasted provisions in the Senate legislation that would de-emphasize family-based immigration in favor of work skills. The bill eliminates visas for siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens.

"Our country has this way of saying who is worthy and who is not worthy," said Yun, the Korean advocate who attended the demonstration. "The family-based immigration system has been good for this country. For example, my father sponsored five of his siblings from Korea and they are all small-business owners who are contributing to this country and hiring employees."

Whether the proposed changes can be altered represents a major test of the political power of Asians and Hispanics. That there is even a bill speaks to their growing clout — and the power of an election.

Mitt Romney's dismal performance among Hispanics has been well chronicled. But the Republican presidential candidate did even worse with Asian voters.

"We don't know what happened," said Mindy Dao, 56, who arrived in Fairfax County in 1980 as a refugee from Vietnam and now runs a cosmetics shop.

She thought the Asian community would be drawn to the GOP's pro-business, family-values message. Two of Romney's sons even campaigned at the sprawling Vietnamese shopping mall in Falls Church where her beauty shop is located, wearing yellow scarves with red stripes, a symbol of opposition to communism in Vietnam.

But for the first time ever, Vietnamese as a group went for a Democrat, a landmark shift fueled by younger voters who favored Obama's health care plan and pledges to help with college costs and his pledges to reform immigration.

Studies show Asian-Americans are more supportive of government services than the overall voting population and are more open to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Obama's minority status also resonated.

"He understands our lives. We all worked hard to get to this point. It's not like family gave us money," said Sophie Duong, 54, who also arrived as a refugee from Vietnam. She earned two college degrees, worked in a high-level position at AT&T and now runs a Vietnamese radio station in the shopping mall, Eden Center.

"The only reason I voted Republican was the pro-business thing. But other than that … they have to change," said Kevin Tran, 46, who owns a Vietnamese grocery store. He could not remember the man's name (Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin) but the comments about "legitimate rape" are stuck in his memory.

"They made a lot of mistakes," Tran said, putting labels on packages of Be Thui, thinly sliced roast veal.

Reeling from the election results, the Republican National Committee announced in March that it would invest $10 million in minority outreach — going deeper than the Asian-language bumper stickers Romney's campaign handed out in Northern Virginia.

There is some hope of reversing the trend. Asians tend to be independent voters, with only about half identifying with the two major parties, mostly Democrat.

"Asians are open, available and imminently reachable," said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California who has long urged — with little success — to get party leaders to focus on minority voters.

"It's just plain neglect," he said. "To me, it's a life-and-death struggle for the life of the Republican Party."

• • •

Dusk falls on a Friday in Annandale and tables begin to fill at Ara, a Korean restaurant and karaoke bar. By 10 p.m. it will be packed, a noisy illustration of the changing culture.

In a quieter spot at a Korean pastry shop down the street, Hanna Oh, 23, and a friend sip boba tea, a sweet drink with chewy tapioca balls. It could be anywhere in America — young women catching up on life after college.

Yet as they sit among first-generation Koreans, who eat pastries and talk quietly in their native language, Oh, who was born here, grasps the transition. "I feel like I'm part of both cultures," she said. "I'm really proud, proud of where we came from and that we came this far."

Her father arrived in Seattle 30 years ago, saving money from washing cars and dishes so he could send for his wife in Korea. They were drawn to Washington to work as street vendors, selling T-shirts and trinkets to tourists. They still do, laboring for a better life for their daughters, both of whom went to the University of Virginia and work in graphic design.

"They lived their dream through us. It was tough at times. But I'm proud they took that leap of faith and just did it."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.

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