Some Asian American community leaders say Elaine Chao's resignation as transportation secretary after the riot at the U.S. Capitol is inadequate after years of harm to marginalized groups and the immigrant community — of which she is a part.
Chao, who officially left her role Monday, is one of the few Asian American immigrants to have ascended to such heights in government. But activists say she leaves behind a legacy of complicity with anti-immigrant, racist policies as a loyal Trump administration official.
Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the social services nonprofit Asian American Federation, said that at this point, regardless of her exit, "damage has been done" to her reputation and credibility.
"Her dissent was needed when Trump degraded, ostracized and isolated the Asian American community with his Covid-19 misinformation and outright racism or in any of the instances when Trump sought to hurt immigrants like herself."
"Elaine Chao was complicit in creating a politics of toxicity and cynicism. Her decision can only be seen in that context," Yoo said. "Her dissent was needed when Trump degraded, ostracized and isolated the Asian American community with his Covid-19 misinformation and outright racism or in any of the instances when Trump sought to hurt immigrants like herself."
Chao, who said in her resignation statement that the violence at the Capitol last week had "deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside," previously made history as the first Asian American woman to hold a Cabinet position. She hasn't been afraid of opening up about her immigrant roots and her difficult early years in America. Chao, 67, came to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was 8 years old, speaking no English.
During a naturalization ceremony last year, she told new citizens at the White House about how her family of five lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment when she arrived in the country. Her father, who became the wealthy head of a shipping company, worked three jobs to support the family. Chao said that to learn English, she would copy everything she saw on the chalkboard at school into a notebook, reviewing the words with her father after he returned home from work at night.
"I think you will understand when I say that our initial years in America were very challenging," Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the newly naturalized citizens. "We didn't speak English, had no family or friends here, couldn't get used to the food nor understand the customs here."
Her rise from her immigrant roots has made her a role model for some Asian American families. In an interview with CNN in 2017, Chao said that those from the community would show up anywhere, from public events to the airport, to greet her and that she would feel an "instant bond." Activists say her actions have proven anything but supportive to immigrant communities.
Chao came under fire several times during Trump's tenure for staying silent as he tried to institute hard-line immigration policies. In 2017, several Asian American organizations called on Chao to oppose Trump's termination of the Temporary Protected Status programs for several countries, including Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti. Temporary Protected Status is typically given to countries where conditions prevent nationals from returning.
They also demanded that she speak out against Trump's attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that year.
While the majority of so-called Dreamers hail from Latin America, about 16,000 undocumented Asian youths are protected under the act. And Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic of undocumented immigrants, their population tripling from 2000 to 2015. Chao, however, was mum about the subject.
She also remained silent about Trump's public charge rule, which denies immigrants residency if they are deemed likely to need public assistance, among other controversial policies. More than 941,000 recent green card holders would have fallen under the rule had it been in effect when they applied, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy organization. Of those, 300,000 are from Asian countries.
But Chao possibly drew the most criticism for migrant family separation. While she did not comment on her stance, she did fire back at protesters at Georgetown University who confronted her and McConnell about the policy in 2018 and asked, "Why are you separating families?"
Chao shouted back, "Leave my husband alone," winning praise among conservatives.
"She effectively colluded with the Trump administration in increasing the separation of our families and rescinding of the DACA program, denying access to public benefits and much more," said Becky Belcore, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, an advocacy organization that was among the groups that previously called on Chao to speak out against the immigration crackdowns.
"Chao was in a position of power that she could have leveraged to support the most marginalized members of our community," Belcore said. "Instead, she was often seen standing next to Trump as he signed anti-immigrant policies into law."
Advocates also said that in a particularly damning moment, Chao, a woman of color, stood by Trump at a news conference at Trump Tower in New York City as he neglected to call out hate groups and claimed that there were "very fine people on both sides" after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
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While her husband, McConnell, had been feuding with Trump at the time, Chao told reporters at the news conference that she stood "by my man — both of them." While it's unclear whether Chao actively supported Trump or was required to do so in the moment as a Cabinet member, John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, said he believes her inaction had consequences.
"President Trump's statement following the events in Charlottesville were reprehensible," Yang said. "It is clear that his remarks were building to the insurrection we saw on Wednesday, and the failure of those around him to call out his behavior emboldened him. It is irresponsible and unconscionable for a sitting president of the United States to not only condone but to incite the behavior of people who are only concerned with holding on to white supremacist power."
Belcore said she felt that Chao, who also served in a Cabinet position as labor secretary under former President George W. Bush, did not sufficiently protect vulnerable workers, including immigrants. But Yang said he felt that Trump's "racism and xenophobia is toxic and dangerous, at a level not seen in recent presidencies," taking more precedence compared to the Bush administration. He said that while immigrants and people of color were “under constant attack in dangerous ways” during Trump’s tenure, Chao was in a position in which she could have stood up more for marginalized people. He said it was “disappointing that she did not do so publicly."
Yang acknowledged that Chao's ascendance to a Cabinet position as an Asian American, a member of a community that continues to struggle with representation in the political sphere, was an accomplishment, but he said that doesn't mean her conduct represented the community well. He said, moreover, that as Chao painted herself as a hard-working immigrant while supporting the administration's anti-immigrant policies, she fed into the "good immigrant versus bad immigrant" myth.
"It is difficult to understand that someone who is an immigrant cannot or will not use that power and influence to improve the lives of as many people as possible within the Asian American community."
"It is difficult to understand that someone who is an immigrant cannot or will not use that power and influence to improve the lives of as many people as possible within the Asian American community," he said.
The advocates said that given the small number of Asian Americans in public service, those who are able to reach the heights Chao did have a responsibility to bring the concerns of the community to the fore.
"Each time a person of color achieves a first, it is incumbent upon her to try to make sure she is not the last," Yang said. "We are proud to see Asian Americans reach the pinnacles of power, but we expect them to exercise that power to help our communities. Otherwise, we simply become a token and silent defender for the status quo."
Belcore said that as the racial group continues to advocate for more visibility, having those who are solely descriptively representative of Asian Americans isn't enough.
"We must have someone who both comes from our community and represents our values. In a country that was founded on the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy, it is our duty as an immigrant community to support the leadership of and advocate for those of us who struggle with poverty, immigration status and lack of access to quality education and health care," she said.
"Having representatives like Chao who look like us but work against us is harmful and confusing to our community members and to the larger American public," she said.