Trump surrogate, Biden discuss immigration, race relations in Asian American town hall

“Asian Americans are being targeted with violence in subject to xenophobic rhetoric from the mouth of the president himself,” Biden said.

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By Benjamin Pu

Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo, a President Donald Trump campaign surrogate, participated in a digital presidential town hall Saturday focusing on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues.

Biden and Calvo offered strikingly different perspectives on the issues facing the AAPI community in the United States. Both campaigns addressed topics important to AAPI voters, including systemic racism, immigration and economic recovery. Vicky Nguyen from NBC News and Amna Nawaz of PBS moderated the forum hosted by nonprofit APIAVote and streamed on NBC Asian America.

During the town hall, race relations across the U.S. were front and center. Biden slammed Trump’s recent racist comments in which he referred to the coronavirus as the “kung flu” and “China flu” and said Trump “only knows how to speak to people’s fears, not to their better angels.”

“Asian Americans are being targeted with violence in subject to xenophobic rhetoric from the mouth of the president himself,” Biden said. “This is the president who, instead of bringing our country together, does everything he can to fan the flames of hate and division in this country.”

Calvo dodged criticism about Trump’s racist remarks around the coronavirus, instead pointing to incidents of looting that occurred around the same time as Black Lives Matter protests across the country and suggested Biden was culpable.

“I’ve seen some of the impact on Korean American stores, our Vietnamese hair and nail shops, our Filipino restaurants that have been looted and people robbed as a result of the riots,” Calvo said. “I can tell you that when you look at the destruction — and whether it's from looting, whether it's robbing, or burning of flags, or tearing down statues — most of all those people, if not all, aren't going to vote for President Trump. Many of them actually are supporters of the Biden campaign.”

Biden also addressed the Asian American model-minority myth, saying he'd use data to highlight groups in need.

"AAPI writ large has a great achievement higher than any other group in America," he said, "but that misrepresents that scores of ethnicities are, in fact, really being hurt and left behind."

Calvo and Biden also discussed the differing stances across the two campaigns on immigration. Calvo praised the Trump administration’s stance on immigration and said the president’s “number one goal is to move to merit-based immigration.”

Trump earlier this month signed an executive order putting a pause on new visas for foreign workers until the end of the year in a proclamation describing workers as “a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.” Calvo said the order would prioritize “bringing in high-skilled workers to grow our nation.”

“It's not about the immigrants, they're important,” Calvo said. “But his first and foremost priority is getting Americans back to work.”

Biden vowed to send an immigration reform bill to Congress on the first day of his administration that would provide a “roadmap for citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants who contribute so much to this country, including 1.7 million AAPI.” Biden also criticized the pause on new visas for foreign workers, saying such a pause would not occur in his administration.

Nawaz, of PBS, pressed Biden during the forum to release his staff’s diversity numbers, which he ordered his campaign to release later that night. Biden reiterated his commitment to ensuring his Cabinet would “look like America” if elected, “from the vice president to straight down through Cabinet members, to major players within the White House, and the court is going to be a reflection of who we are as a nation.”

In a summary of staff data obtained by NBC News, the Biden campaign said 35 percent of its full-time staff are people of color and 36 percent of senior staff are people of color. In addition, the diversity memo said several senior staff members are of AAPI descent, including the chief financial officer and chief operating officer, among other roles.

The Trump campaign also released some diversity statistics, after Biden’s release, announcing 25 percent of its senior staff are people of color. The campaign declined to provide information for all full-time staff.

Biden’s in-person appearance to the virtual town hall was noteworthy. At the 2016 APIAVote Presidential Forum, both the Hillary Clinton and Trump campaigns sent surrogates as opposed to appearing in person. Trump did not participate in this year’s forum, opting instead to golf at Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, but sent Calvo as a surrogate to represent the campaign.

Calvo said he represented a “microcosm of the Trump campaign” and that it was important to have the Trump campaign represented at the forum by a member of the AAPI community.