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In Congress, the Fight for Asian American and Pacific Islander Voices Hasn’t Slowed

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus with former chair Mike Honda. From left to right: Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), Sen. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), former Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), Rep, Grace Meng (D-NY) Courtesy of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus

Diverse in scope and reach, congressional caucuses have long provided platforms for groups of like-minded lawmakers to tackle common legislative goals together.

But missing from the mix, until the mid-90s, was a caucus for Asian Pacific Americans.

That need became plain to Norman Y. Mineta when he and other Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) members of Congress tried arranging a meeting with the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, established in 1993, Mineta told NBC News.

At the time, Mineta was a Democratic congressman from California. Hillary Clinton, then first lady, was designated task force chair by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, both created in the 70s, had met with Clinton’s group, according to Mineta, but AAPI lawmakers couldn’t get an appointment.

The formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) on May 16, 1994, eventually got them that meeting, Mineta said.

“When I would call and say, ‘This is chairman Norman Mineta, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus,’ [it would] get their attention,” recalled 85-year-old Mineta, who served in the cabinets of both Clinton and former President George W. Bush.

Since then, CAPAC has grown from the handful of lawmakers who founded it 23 years ago to the 50 U.S. House representatives and senators it counts today as members.

Its anniversary falls during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which President Donald Trump issued a proclamation for on April 28. Mineta, CAPAC’s first chair, was one of the architects of the House resolution that first designated a week beginning in May 1979 to recognize the contributions of AAPIs.

While some issues affecting this diverse racial group have changed over the decades, caucus members say CAPAC’s mission remains the same: to promote the well-being of AAPI communities.

“CAPAC is a caucus that formed to be a voice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the nation,” current chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) told NBC News.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Elected Officials Celebrate 'Firsts' at DNC 0:56

To accomplish that, CAPAC works on passing legislation that benefits AAPIs and educating members of Congress on issues that affect the community, Chu said. Those include immigration, healthcare, and education, to name a few.

CAPAC, which is nonpartisan, comprises not just House representatives and senators who are Asian American and Pacific Islander, but also dozens of members who represent districts with large AAPI populations.

According to the Census, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians account for about 6.6 percent of the United States population. They remain the fastest growing racial group in the country. The 115th Congress, which convened on Jan. 3, has 18 members who are AAPI, a record high.

In general, a caucus with a robust membership can provide strength in numbers, allowing federal lawmakers to pool their efforts to advocate for whatever causes they’re championing. And it’s not just confined to getting new laws passed.

Take ABC late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, for instance. In 2013, Kimmel came under fire for airing a sketch in which a child suggested that “killing everyone in China” could help solve America’s debt problem.

Asian-American groups staged protests and signed petitions against Kimmel. CAPAC also condemned the segment, Chu said. Shortly after all the backlash, ABC apologized.

Then there’s the policy front. Immigration reform remains one of CAPAC’s top priorities, according to Chu. Among the concerns of AAPIs, she said, are a backlog on family-based visas and a non-immigrant visa granted to overseas specialty workers, known as the H-1B.

Like Mineta did when he first formed the caucus and got a meeting with Hillary Clinton’s then healthcare taskforce, CAPAC asked in March for a sit down with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. That face-to-face came less than three weeks later on April 5.

According to CAPAC, the meeting with Kelly covered such topics as immigration enforcement priorities, guidance on racial profiling, and some of Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Those orders include one that temporarily suspends immigration to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority nations and others that address how federal authorities deal with undocumented immigrants.

“I think it was a good start, but it comes very late,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a freshman member of Congress and CAPAC, told NBC News.

The White House has said that those in the U.S. who pose a threat to public safety or have committed crimes, around 1 million people, will be the first ones deported.

“We’re really looking to press to [Kelly] around how he envisions carrying out some of these executive orders, which are so broad,” Jayapal said.

Trump, meanwhile, has kept in place an executive action signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That measure temporarily removes the threat of deportation for undocumented immigrant children and also grants them authorization to work.

One in seven Asian immigrants is undocumented, according to AAPI Data.

Humanizing America: Undocumented and Asian 3:57

Trump’s executive order last month to overhaul the controversial H-1B program has also rattled some in the AAPI community. Supporters argue that it brings in overseas talent in fields like engineering, computers, and science, but critics say it gives away American jobs to lower-paid workers.

In fiscal year 2014, citizens of India made up 70 percent of the 316,000 H-1B petitions approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Asked how things might be different without CAPAC, Chu said, “We wouldn’t have had an avenue with which to talk to somebody like Secretary Kelly. It’s very important for us to raise our voices on these issues.”

But CAPAC doesn’t just go it alone. It’s also part of what’s called the Tri-Caucus, which includes CAPAC, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus was formed to advocate for African Americans and to bring issues and concerns to DC that were affecting black constituents across the country; in 1976, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sought to do the same for Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Together, the three have tackled a range of issues from healthcare to education and more.

Image: Judy Chu, Al Green,  Jan Schakowsky, Juan Vargas, Jared Polis, David Cicilline, Luis Gutierrez
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and other House Democratic advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, speaks during a a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, on the implementation of President Barack Obama's executive actions to spare millions from immediate deportation. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

As part of the Tri-Caucus, for instance, CAPAC has supported the Health Equity and Accountability Act, Chu said, introduced every year since 2007. The legislation, which has repeatedly died in Congress, seeks to eliminate health disparities across different racial and ethnic groups.

It would, among other things, pursue measures to tackle diseases like diabetes and Hepatitis, which are prevalent in the AAPI community. It would also strengthen data collection, improve analysis, and expand reporting.

A source familiar with the bill said a lot of the provisions in the original act were incorporated into the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which the House has already taken a step toward repealing.

The source added that there are plans to reintroduce the Health Equity and Accountability Act later this year or early next year.

On education, the Tri-Caucus has also supported the Every Student Succeeds Act, a reauthorization of a 52-year-old federal education law.

Among other things, advocates say the legislation, which replaces No Child Left Behind, prioritizes the needs of English language learners and tracks the outcome of minority students, a measure CAPAC and the Tri-Caucus fought to include, Chu said.

But critics argue that the act, signed by Obama in December 2015, affords too much federal control over state standards and continues an emphasis on burdensome testing.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a joint resolution nixing a federal rule it said placed constraints on how states must carry out accountability systems in the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Tri-Caucus had opposed the resolution, calling it “another step in the Republican attack on public education and enforcement authority of the Department of Education.”

Trump signed it into law on March 27.

CAPAC’s anniversary comes as the U.S. celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. First authorized by former President Jimmy Carter as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week in 1979, the observance grew to a month beginning in 1990 and was permanently designated as such two years later.

Two symbolic events drove the choice of May: the first Japanese who immigrated to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad’s completion on May 10, 1869, built largely by Chinese immigrants.

Some have worried that this year’s celebration might be smaller in scope than in previous years, a fear that Chu allayed

It comes just three months after 10 members of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders tendered their resignations.

In a letter to Trump, they said they objected to his "portrayal of immigrants, refugees, people of color and people of various faiths as untrustworthy, threatening, and a drain on our nation."

Six others stepped down on the day of Trump’s inauguration; a total of four remain. Trump has not yet reauthorized the commission, created by Bill Clinton in 1999.

“On the activist level, I would say people are more energized than ever,” Chu said. “They really feel that they have to have a voice in what’s going on, otherwise there can be very negative consequences to it.”

CAPAC has seen changes since it was first formed in 1994. Some of the founding members have since passed on. Those include former Reps. Bob Matsui (D-CA), Patsy Mink (D-HI), Sen. Dan Inouye (D-HI), and non-voting House Del. Eni H. Faleomavaega, a Democrat who represented American Samoa.

Others no longer serve in elected office. Former Rep. Jay Kim (R-CA), who was convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions, left Congress in 1999 after an election defeat, and 92-year-old Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in 2013 after deciding not to seek another term.

Former non-voting House Del. Robert Underwood, a Democrat who represented Guam and CAPAC’s founding vice chair, later became president of the University of Guam. And Mineta served as Commerce secretary for Clinton and Transportation secretary for George W. Bush until 2006. He was the only Democrat in Bush’s cabinet.

CAPAC’s last founding member of Asian descent still in Congress is Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), whose maternal grandfather is of Filipino ancestry.

Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), AAAJ-AAJC executive director Mee Moua, and NCAPA national director Christopher Kang hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court urging Senate Republicans to hold confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland and seven other Asian American and Pacific Islander judges. Courtesy of CAPAC

Over the last few decades, AAPIs have also upped their presence in the House and Senate. Just this past election, the number of AAPI federal lawmakers rose from 14 to 18.

For Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman elected to the House in November, her hope is that CAPAC can double or even triple its membership in the coming years, she said.

“What I would really like to see is that CAPAC gets consulted long before we agree to budget legislative proposals that are out there, that we are part of the strategic decision making of the overall Democratic caucus in terms of really being able to push the priorities of our communities,” she said.

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Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Rep. Bobby Scott is the last remaining founding member of CAPAC in Congress. He is the last founding member of Asian descent in Congress.