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Ahead of New York Primary, South Asian Voters Debate Clinton vs. Sanders

Image: BESTPIX Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami

Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shake hands before the Univision News and Washington Post Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on the Miami Dade Colleges Kendall Campus on March 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

With one week to go before New York’s presidential primaries, 62-year-old Shah Salim Khan knows who’ll be getting his vote. A resident of Jackson Heights, Queens, home to the borough’s largest Bangladeshi community, Khan said his choice comes down to experience and connections.

“Hillary is the best, because she has more knowledge than anyone else, all over the world,” Khan, an Muslim-American businessman voting for the first time this year, told NBC News. “She has a better relationship than anyone else. We need now, someone, our commander in chief, who can have the best relationship and access all over the world."

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Image: Hillary Clinton Visits Jackson Diner In Queens, NY
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks with patrons as she visits the Jackson Diner on April 11, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The New York Democratic primary is scheduled for April 19th. Andrew Theodorakis / Getty Images

In interviews along 73rd Street near the 7 subway line — a busy thoroughfare dotted with apartment buildings, mom-and-pop Bangladeshi shops, and a mosque — many Muslim Americans said foreign policy and the economy were among the key issues in this year’s presidential race. Many also dismissed as political bluster comments from Republican candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas about barring Muslims from entering the U.S. and increasing police patrols in Muslim-American communities.

“A lot of times, the remarks that Donald Trump made don’t offend me as much as what the people who do the crimes in the name of Islam say,” Sajjad Ahmed, a 32-year-old who is Muslim, told NBC News. “So I’m more upset about what they’re doing than what Donald Trump is saying.”

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Getting Muslim voters to the polls in New York next Tuesday has been a top priority for Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit in Jackson Heights that serves the neighborhood’s South Asian community. Queens, one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. with 2.2 million residents, has the city’s largest South Asian population, with three out of five calling the borough home, according to the U.S. Census.

Obama to Muslim-Americans: 'You're Part of America Too' 5:26

In the weeks leading up to the primary, Chhaya organizers have been manning the phones, hitting the streets, and knocking on doors to remind registered voters about the state’s April 19 primary.

Up for grabs in New York are 291 delegates for Democrats and 95 for Republicans. As of Monday, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was leading with 1,748 delegates and Trump with 756, according to NBC News. To get the party’s nomination, Clinton still needs 635 delegates and Trump 481.

To that end, Muslims could play an important role in New York’s Democratic primary. In March, Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont defeated Clinton in Michigan’s primary, a state whose city of Dearborn has an Arab-American population of 41 percent. Dearborn’s election results show Sanders received around 59 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 39 percent.

Image: An audience member holds a "Muslims 4 Bernie" sign at a campaign rally with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Oklahoma City
An audience member holds a "Muslims 4 Bernie" sign at a campaign rally with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, February 28, 2016. BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters

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By contrast, the New York City metropolitan area has around several hundred thousand Muslims who are eligible to vote, Robert S. McCaw, government affairs department manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told NBC News. The exact number, however, is unclear since voter registration forms do not ask for religion, he said.

A CAIR poll, which surveyed 2,000 Muslim voters and was released after Super Tuesday on March 1, showed that 46 percent of respondents supported Clinton, 25 percent Sanders, and 11 percent Trump. It also revealed that older Muslims backed Clinton while younger ones supported Sanders.

Seven percent of 2,000 registered U.S. Muslim voters surveyed would cast ballots in 2016 for Donald Trump, according to a survey released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in February 2016.
Seven percent of 2,000 registered U.S. Muslim voters surveyed would cast ballots in 2016 for Donald Trump, according to a survey released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in February 2016. via Council on American-Islamic Relations

Ahmed, who is in his 30s, was born in Bangladesh, and grew up in Queens, told NBC News he was unsure who would get his vote. The senior analyst for the History Channel said he still needed time to mull over the positions of the Democratic candidates before making a decision. But Ahmed added that Trump’s comments about building a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border and creating a database to track Muslims do not make sense to him.

“On a bigger level, about how it’s going to affect us here, of course you have to think about how people who are running for office need to behave in a different way, need to think in a more progressive way, in a sense to set up something for four years down the line and not just for tomorrow,” he said.

Najma Syed, a 62-year-old elementary school teacher, told NBC News she was also undecided about whether she would cast her ballot for Clinton or Sanders. Syed, an immigrant from Bangladesh, said she voted for President Barack Obama twice and said she would support whoever was the Democratic nominee.

“I’m going to vote for a person who does good for this country,” she said.

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Like Khan, the businessman backing Clinton, Syed believes the U.S. needs to improve its relations with other countries. The economy and attitudes toward immigrants, Syed said, are also issues she considers important, a view reflected by some of the findings of the Super Tuesday CAIR poll on Muslim voters.

As for Trump, Syed said, “He’s a good businessman, but I think politically, he has a long way to go. He’s not mature yet.”

Khan put it another way: “Businessman and commander in chief — it’s day and night."

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