Political Infighting Doesn't Spare Harris County’s Asian American Community Even as Its Voter Turnout Doubles

Jayant Sheth, the president of the Indian American Coalition of Texas, registers a voter at a registration drive to increase turn out among Asian Americans.
Jayant Sheth, the president of the Indian American Coalition of Texas, registers a voter at a registration drive to increase turn out among Asian Americans. Photo by Sarah Pleuthner
“I am Vietnamese-American and I support VP Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. I'm sticking my neck out by doing this and I fully expect my family to react badly to this.”

That’s how Victor Nguyen began his Facebook post announcing his support for Biden’s bid for president.

As election day nears, the Asian American community hasn’t been spared from the infighting or the impassioned civic engagement that follows.

Victor Nguyen is one of at least 49,500 Asian Americans who’ve cast a ballot in Harris County so far this election season. That’s almost double the number of Asian Americans who voted early in 2016.

“I was a conservative for the first decade or so of my life, but the more I learn, the more liberal-leaning I've become,” Nguyen went on to write. “Sure, they'll call me a traitor to my family and my ancestral homeland. Maybe even label me a brainwashed socialist/communist like every other Viet who doesn't follow the conservatism of my Viet elders … All I can say is, that's not very democratic, is it?”

The generational political divide within the Vietnamese American community is nothing new, but the events of this chaotic election year have driven it to a fever pitch.

The political ideologies of Asian Americans are as diverse as the demographic itself and when it comes to divisive issues there’s something for everyone. Jayant Sheth points to the increased political polarization as the reason behind the doubled turnout.

“The two parties’ agendas are so different,” said Sheth, a board member of the non-partisan Indian American Coalition for Texas. “Every election cycle the two parties are getting further and further apart. This year, everyone’s voting against something rather than for something.”

Chanda Parbhoo, the founder of South Asian Americans for Voter Education + Engagement + Empowerment, said the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has turned some members of the community away from voting Republican.

“My community loves facts and data,” Parbhoo said. “I know a lot of people who've said, 'I probably would've voted Republican until I saw how he handled COVID, and that's when I changed my mind because I'm really afraid of what another four years is going to bring us if we're not paying attention to facts and data.’”

Indian Americans are the most solidly Democratic-leaning Asian American demographic. Parbhoo said that having Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket is also helping with turnout among voters who see themselves reflected in her biography.

“I feel like we're been chipping away at those barriers, we've been chipping away at the idea of who represents us. And she's it,” Parbhoo said. “She has the full package for us. For me as a South Asian, I see her, I see her story. She is my story. She's everything I've been through.”

According to a survey SAAVE conducted of the Texas South Asian community, which includes sizable populations of physicians and small business owners, healthcare was the most important issue, followed by immigration and the economy.

“People are always worried about taxes and what it means to their small businesses,” Parbhoo said. “We have a very large community that is very concerned about the current trade wars and isolationism of the current administration.”

Sheth, the lone Republican board member of IACT, said the economic policies of the Trump administration can also be a draw, especially for older Asian Americans and business owners.

“As people get older, they get more concerned about holding onto their money,” Sheth said. “Younger people are very idealistic, but as they get older, they get more practical.”

Thu Nguyen (no relation to Victor Nguyen), who grew up in Houston and now directs the Asian American organization OCA, said many Vietnamese Americans are drawn to the polls to vote for Trump due to the perception of him as a successful businessman who will bring back jobs to America and increase employment rates.

According to Thu Nguyen, API (shorthand for Asian Pacific Islander) conservative groups have also been very active in organizing. Many older immigrants from Vietnam, China, and India are drawn to the Republican party for their anti-Communist rhetoric.

Victor Nguyen said the motivation to get out the vote in the Vietnamese American community, which is the only majority-Republican API demographic, comes from a sense of loyalty.

“Vietnamese American voters, especially the older generations, are going to vote based on history,” he said. “They’ll vote on their own personal history, and not necessarily based on current events. That legacy matters more. They look to who was responsible for certain actions — like America's failure in Vietnam and who was responsible for welcoming in Vietnamese refugees.”

Thu Nguyen said that conservatives in the Vietnamese community will sometimes point to a misconception that Joe Biden voted against allowing in refugees after the Vietnam War. (This is not true). Even Vietnamese language newspapers and media outlets based in Houston largely reflect conservative viewpoints, Victor Nguyen said.

“Right wing politics was how many first-generation immigrants first got into politics at all, because conservative groups were the first to reach out,” Victor Nguyen said. “In a way, there’s a sense of loyalty. There’s a Vietnamese phrase that roughly means 'don’t bite the hand that feeds you.'”

According to Thu Nguyen, so far the only non-presidential candidate who has reached out directly to mobilize the vote in the Vietnamese community is John Cornyn, the Republican senator running for reelection.

Cornyn’s campaign produced a video in Vietnamese about his help in securing the release of William Nguyen, a Houston native who was held for over a month by the Vietnamese government. However, according to Thu Nguyen, the Viets for Biden campaign is working with William Nguyen to release a counter-ad stating that while William is grateful for Cornyn’s help, he does not agree with Cornyn’s policies.

Thu Nguyen said that the Biden campaign has been focused on turning out in Harris County Asian Americans.

“There’s a notable spike in Vietnamese language outreach,” she said. “Between the social media, texts, videos, and a concerted effort in Vietnamese language phone banking, Democrats are doing a really good job engaging API youth. I think that’s the voter block that's historically been apathetic or doesn’t turn out.”

Other candidates have gone in the opposite direction. Debbie Chen of the API organizing group OCA Houston mentioned that Kathaleen Wall, a Republican congressional candidate in Fort Bend County, released a campaign ad claiming “China poisoned our people.”

While people unfamiliar with the complexities of Asian American identity may assume Republicans’ xenophobic and often anti-Chinese rhetoric (kung flu anyone?) would alienate the entire demographic, it actually draws in older conservatives from countries like Vietnam, who face anxieties over China’s territorial and economic aggression.

“I know for a fact that there are Vietnamese Americans who are anti-CCP [Chinese Communist Party] who believe that this virus is a bioweapon that was released by China, [and China] was just unfortunate not to have an antidote themselves,” Thu Nguyen said.

And although Sheth said it's a small minority, “some Indians are anti-Muslim and they’re drawn to the anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

Even some API conservatives who aren’t drawn in by the xenophobia don’t find it entirely off-putting.

“If you talk to reasonable Vietnamese American conservatives, they’ll say that at the end of the day, it's all about white people running this country and they're all racist anyway,” Thu Nguyen said.

Ultimately, the dramatic surge in voting this election comes both from partisan passion and intensified organizing efforts from groups like OCA.

Chen said OCA has left voting information at 2,000 doors in pockets of Houston with high concentrations of API, including Sugar Land, Jersey Village, and Bellaire.

“Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic,” Chen said. “These are pockets that can really be a margin of difference in a tight race.”

All their work is coming to fruition, as Harris County achieves historic turnout with the help of an extra 25,000 Asian Americans.

“We just tell people that you need to vote so the API voice is heard, and we want that across the aisle,” Chen said. “We want a seat at every table where policies get made that impact our community. We just don't want our issues to be the ones that are left behind.”
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Anna Ta is a reporting fellow covering local and regional news at the Houston Press in partnership with the Google News Initiative. Born and raised in Houston, she's always in search of the strongest and sweetest Vietnamese coffee humanly possible.
Contact: Anna Ta