Meet the Immigrant Legislators Putting Their Stamp on the Capitol
Assemblyman Ash Kalra (L), Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio and Assemblyman Ed Chau
Immigration, both documented and undocumented, has come under more scrutiny since President Trump took office. Since California is home to an estimated 10 million or more immigrants, the issue has particular resonance here.
As a result, state government is increasingly taking up bills supporters say will help protect that population. And immigrants themselves are becoming more involved in the political process. These eight immigrants are members of the state Legislature, and are helping to craft policy at the state Capitol -- or in some cases to oppose it.
Blanca Rubio was elected to the Assembly last November. The oldest of five children, Rubio spent her early years in Juarez, Mexico. When she was a young girl, Rubio moved with her parents to a small town in Texas, where her father had a construction job but no work permit. Her father was eventually found out and the family was deported to Mexico.
When she was 8 years old, Rubio and her family successfully arrived in Los Angeles, again as undocumented immigrants. She spoke English, but her younger brother Robert did not.
“Instead of putting him in an (English as a Second Language) class, they put him in a special education classroom. And to this day he’s suffered the effects of being, basically, misdiagnosed," she says.
Her brother’s experience is what pushed Rubio to become politically involved.
"I couldn’t do anything. I was 8 and my parents didn’t speak English," she says. "I feel like every time I’m speaking up for somebody, I want to save my brother, and I can’t do that.”
Blanca Rubio: An Immigrant Legislator Putting Her Stamp on the Capitol
Janet Nguyen drew attention recently when she was removed from the Senate floor after criticizing the late state Sen. Tom Hayden. Nguyen and her family fled Vietnam after the war, and she was speaking out against Hayden’s support of communist North Vietnam during the war.
Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1976. Her father served in the South Vietnamese Army, helping the U.S. during the war. After Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, Nguyen’s family was faced with the prospect of being sent to a “re-education camp.”
Instead they left Saigon and went to live in her grandmother’s village until they could escape the country on a boat. Nguyen’s father and brother went first. She, her mom and sister followed about a year later.
"By the time we got to Thailand, (the) government was so full of refugees that they weren’t taking in any more," she says. "When we got there, every time our boat came in they would drag our boat back out."
The group ended up swimming to shore in Thailand. Eventually the family was reunited and sponsored as refugees by a California church group. They arrived in the state in 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was putting his stamp on the Republican Party. The family, and many Vietnamese, saw him as the person who gave them refuge and took a strong stance against communism.
Nguyen says she worked hard and eventually found herself at UC Irvine. During her sophomore year she took a politics class, which led to Nguyen changing her major to political science.
“A year after I changed my major is when I told my parents," Nguyen recalls. "And what they said to me is, 'Wait a minute, we escaped the government. Now you’re one of them,' " she says.
"What I realized, though, is everything we do in our life is governed by government, whether we like it or not. I wanted to be there when laws were created for or against someone like me.”
Nguyen went on to win election to the Garden Grove City Council, then the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2007. In 2014 she was elected to the state Senate. Nguyen says people in her community require good-paying jobs and quality schools, but also help when they need it.
“I always tell my constituents when you need me the most, the government, I will always be here for you," she says. "But when you are so done with me, hand it back to me and I can help the next Janet Nguyen family.”
Assemblyman Ash Kalra, (D-San Jose), Canada
Ash Kalra's parents are natives of India, but were living in Canada when he was born. The family moved to San Jose when he was 6. Kalra became San Jose’s first Indian-American City Council member when he won a seat in 2008. He says his desire to enter public service developed early during a childhood trip to India.
"I would see boys my age that looked like me, coming up to me begging me for money. That was the first realization I had that there was a difference in my life compared to so many others," he says.
"It wasn’t just the sense of feeling lucky, but also the sense of obligation that, even at that young age, I carried with me in the back of my mind."
His political victories have gotten him lots of attention in his community. He won election to the Assembly in November, where he’s not only the first Indian-American to serve, but also the first Hindu. And Kalra says many in the community look to him on big issues like immigration. For instance, he says the media often focuses on Latinos when talking about undocumented immigrants. But he points out many living here illegally are also Asian and Pacific Islanders (API).
“API at times can feel invisible on these larger conversations," he says. "Part of it is self-inflicted, where we are not as vocal on the issues that impact us. And some of it is that we just haven’t been as thoroughly engaged."
Kalra says he’s seeing more Indians like himself getting involved in politics as the field becomes more accepted within his community. He's part of a growing number of Indian-American lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Silicon Valley congressman Ro Khanna.
How has being an immigrant affected the way you approach legislation and issues relevant to your district?
"I was very young when my parents made the difficult decision to leave Iran. I remember hiding in our building’s basement while exploding bombs rocked the foundation of my childhood home. The sadness I felt when my family was separated. My mother and me fleeing to Cyprus, and then Germany; finally arriving in our new home: the San Fernando Valley.
"War is unforgiving and incomprehensible through the eyes of a child, but the compassion of strangers, small acts of community along the journey to safety, stood out.
"As I got older, I saw that my community -- a community that was largely distrusting of the government -- was missing out on being represented, on having our voices heard. So I got involved, going door to door, registering voters, and engaging my community in issues that affected us. I worked with others to identify and empower people in our community to run for local office and spread awareness even further.
"My aim as a legislator is to give voice to all of my constituents. I find it extremely important to connect with people on a human level, and meeting with constituents is always one of my biggest privileges and priorities. I want to break down barriers and help my constituents realize that politics is power, and to have a voice, they need to speak up! The issues that affect our communities — affordable housing, education, eradicating homelessness, clean water, quality health care, and efficient transportation options -- impact us all, regardless of where we may have been born."
Assemblyman Ed Chau, (D-Monterey Park), Hong Kong
"As the legislator for the 49th Assembly District, representing the first state district in which Asian-Americans make up a majority of the population and where we have a large number of foreign-born voters, I strive to serve the diverse needs of the district's constituents; particularly in the areas of language access, mental health, education and small business assistance.
"Being a first-generation lawmaker provides me the opportunity to communicate with many of these constituents, oftentimes in their language or dialect. I am also able to identify with their obstacles, and, as a result, encourage them to get involved in the political process. By soliciting input about their struggles, I am also able to give voice to issues of importance to them that sometimes may go unnoticed or unspoken.”
Assemblyman Kansen Chu, (D-San Jose), Taiwan
"I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States in 1976 as a graduate student. I had the honor of serving on the San Jose City Council for seven years. I was the first Chinese-American to serve on that region's council. Previous to City Council, I served on the Berryessa Union School Board for five years.
"My personal story reflects that of many first-generation immigrant families in California. I represent the 25th Assembly District, one of the most ethnically diverse districts in all of California. It is one that embodies a rich tapestry of culture, language, belief systems and stories similar like mine. That is why when I am in Sacramento, I prioritize making decisions that will directly benefit my constituents.
"As an example, with the uptick of hate crimes within the Asian, Muslim and Indian American communities, I authored AB 158, a bill that will create uniform hate crime reporting for law enforcement. I also was appointed the chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Hate Crimes to provide opportunities for my constituents to have a direct seat at the table to discuss these critical issues."
Assemblyman Steven Choi, (R-Irvine), South Korea
Assemblyman Choi did not provide an answer.
Choi was born in South Korea and earned his bachelor's degree from Kyung Hee University in Seoul. He came to the United States as a Peace Corps language instructor for the State Department in August 1968. Choi went on to earn his master's degree in library science from Louisiana State University, and his Ph.D. in library and information science at the University of Pittsburgh.
He was elected to the Irvine City Council in 2004 and was elected mayor in 2012. He won election to the State Assembly in 2016.
Senator John Moorlach, (R-Costa Mesa), Netherlands
Sen. Moorlach did not provide an answer.
Moorlach came to the United States with his family from the Netherlands when he was 4. He's a certified public accountant and certified financial planner, and served as the Orange County treasurer-tax collector. In 2006 he was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the state Senate in 2015.