Remember our immigrant voters

Any political party interested in expanding its base in Georgia must engage immigrant voters or those who have come to this country recently and become naturalized citizens.

Take Gwinnett County, with 4.5 percent Asian, 4.8 percent Latino and 25 percent African-American active voters. While voter turnout as a whole went down between the last two presidential elections at both state and county levels, voter turnout in Gwinnett increased among immigrants.

In the 2012 Duluth House district race, state Rep. Pedro Marin — the Democratic incumbent who was redistricted to a majority Republican district running through New Koreatown — won in large part due to Asian-American voters. He also won by a larger margin there than in his former majority-Democratic district.

What can be deduced from Marin’s race is that while many Asian-Americans identify as Republican — slightly more than 50 percent, based on an exit poll we conducted in 2010 — they vote ultimately on issues. A voter survey we conducted this year of hundreds of voters in Gwinnett found 20 percent saying they voted based on party loyalty.

The percentage of white voters in Georgia is on the decline. Georgia is growing more urban and less rural. Counting on the vote of avowed Democrats in the state won’t win or influence larger elections. And token, last-minute pleas to immigrant voters with top-down messaging don’t work.

That’s where knowledge of what issues catalyze immigrant civic participation can help win votes. Our 2013 Voter Survey, which included a majority of Asian respondents, asked respondents to select their top priorities from a list of 11 issues. The top three issues were public education, economic equity/small business and access to health care. Immigration was also important, but as a secondary issue alongside transportation and public safety.

AALAC’s 2014 policy agenda reflects the interests of our immigrant electorate. We are pushing for greater protection against cyberbullying, an epidemic that depresses educational achievement and impacts all children. Many may not know that Asian teens are the most frequently cyberbullied of all race groups, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

We will continue to educate on the dangers of mandatory E-Verify policies, a resource drain on small businesses and disproportionately harmful to legal immigrant workers who are 30 times more likely to be falsely flagged by this database as “illegal” to work.

We are also advocating for policies that would allow workers to use earned sick time to care for ill family members.

Finally, we are educating people on the Affordable Care Act. We’ve found voters from both parties value increased access and affordable options for health insurance.

Learning to speak about these issues in a way that resonates with immigrant voters requires investment and interest in this new American electorate. It takes a long-term vision and realization that the face of Georgia has changed.

Helen Kim Ho is executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center. She also is the wife of Rodney Ho, AJC entertainment blogger.

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