Pete Buttigieg launches plan for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with focus on education

The agenda will provide more educational resources for AAPI groups in need.
Image: Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C.
Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Tuesday in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.Patrick Semansky / AP

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By Kimmy Yam

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg released a wide-ranging agenda Wednesday for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population.

The plan announced by the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is titled “Belonging, Opportunity, Empowerment: An Agenda for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” The contents of the policy website were shared prior to publication with NBC Asian America, which was the first to report on it.

The comprehensive plan focuses on education, jobs and health and includes AAPI-specific solutions such as disaggregating data down to ethnicity and improving language access to federal programs. It also highlights his platform on issues that target more general populations including gun safety and increasing pay and support for teachers.

“Like so many others, AAPIs aspire for each generation to be better off than the last in all aspects of their lives,” the plan reads. “He will ensure that AAPI individuals have a sense of security and a feeling of belonging in a nation that values their unique stories and contributions.”

Buttigieg’s announcement comes a week before Super Tuesday, when several states with a significant Asian American presence — including California, where roughly a third of all AAPI in the U.S. live — will be among those holding their primaries and caucuses.

The plan emphasizes education in particular, committing more resources to subgroups such as Bhutanese, Burmese and Nepali students, who have the highest dropout rates in the U.S. The agenda also says he'll tackle bullying and will work to provide more counseling for AAPI youth, noting that 50 percent of the group has said they've been bullied based on race.

Buttigieg also says he'll include more funding and student debt reduction for institutions that serve 43 percent AAPI students.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of data and policy research nonprofit AAPI Data, said that there are a few portions of the plan that strike him as a deviation from what he would expect from the campaign, particularly Buttigieg’s immigration platform.

The agenda says that the candidate would “consider deferred action or deferred enforced departure” for those in the Southeast Asian community facing deportation. He would also support programs that would reform the immigration court system and give people better access to counsel. But this isn’t a significant departure from the established policy. Ramakrishnan noted that “what was interesting is [the plan] didn't really talk that much about the deportation relief, or changing the priorities for deportation.”

Due to a pair of strict Clinton-era immigration laws, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, there is currently little judicial discretion in immigration hearings, so that a judge would not be permitted to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding an individual’s case. Factors like an individual’s status as a caregiver, active member of society, or parent of U.S. citizens would not be examined.

In the past two fiscal years alone, the deportation of Cambodian immigrants has increased by 279 percent under the Trump administration. There have been reports that the U.S. could be pushing for increased repatriation of Southeast Asian immigrants, many of whom came to the country as refugees.

“It’s more conservative than I would have expected on immigration,” Ramakrishnan said of the agenda. “The campaign could have done more to problematize the current situation when it comes to deporting not only AAPI immigrants, but immigrants more generally.”

Another unique area in Buttigieg’s plan is the creation of a “Community Renewal” visa program, briefly mentioned under a section titled “modernize our employment-based visa system.” The visa program would incentivize immigrants to resettle in cities and towns that have lost prime-working-age population over the previous decades.

“Immigrants who participate in this program will receive an expedited path to permanent residence and play a crucial role in revitalizing the economies of shrinking communities,” according to the agenda.

But Ramakrishnan doesn't think framing the visa system as a community-based issue as opposed to national is such a straightforward task, as he says it would serve as a “pretty big departure” from the current way the country looks at visas and immigration policies.

While the list of issues doesn’t necessarily reveal what topics Buttigieg would prioritize if he wins the election, Ramakrishnan says it shows that candidates are paying more attention to the AAPI electorate.

“Well researched, and detailed policy platforms involving Asian American Pacific Islanders — I think that's a good thing. It's a little late for some of the campaigns to be doing it now, but I would say better late than never,” he said. “The fact that they're taking the time to research our community's needs and to think about it in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner, I think it's a good thing.”

Thus far, not a single candidate has clinched the AAPI vote. In a recent statewide survey in California, Asian Americans were found to be the group most likely to remain unsure who their first pick for president would be. Moreover, a 2018 Asian American voter survey showed that 2 in 5 Asian American registered voters did not identify themselves as either Democrat or Republican. A list of more than 100 prominent Asian American and Pacific Islanders endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. However the Asian American super PAC AAPI Victory Fund came out in support of former Vice President Joe Biden.