Asian Immigrants In Queens Prepare For Redistricting Battle

New York State Congressional Districts

New York State Congressional Districts. (Nationalatlas.gov)

Now that the census results are out, redistricting is next.

It’s a cycle of political life. When decennial census figures show a community bursting at the seams or diminishing in numbers, officials and political leaders will quickly go into remap mode.

Every ten years, in response to population shifts reflected in the census count, the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives get reapportioned among the 50 states.  This year, New York State is losing two House seats, dropping from 29 to 27.

Congressional, state and local legislative districts will get redrawn too, so that they contain (roughly) the same population.

The ideal ensures that political power and government services are equitably distributed. But the reality is that some political leaders use redistricting to preserve their constituents’ voting power and ensure their reelection in years to come. It can also be an opportunity for new communities to assert themselves and establish their political power.

“The way that districts are redrawn can affect the composition of the legislative delegation or legislature as a whole,” says a 2010 study by the Brennan Center for Justice titled A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting. “Many believe that we would have different representatives, federal and state, if the district lines were drawn differently.”

In a community forum, “Immigrant Queens: Defining Communities of Interest,” on March 28, scholars and community advocates warned that unless Asian Americans in the borough present a cohesive political force, they will be run over in the process of redistricting.

“Politicians don’t pay attention to people who don’t vote,” John Mollenkopf, director of the center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), put it bluntly.

He stressed that voting power is essential to redistricting because political leaders tend to “take more seriously” populations that are not only registered voters, but have party affiliations and vote in party primaries.  He said the parties that redraw the map usually “target the clusters of voters.”

“Gerrymandering” is what gives redistricting the stench of a Machiavellian power grab. The Brennan study defined the process as a “manipulation of district lines to affect political power.” Often it involves a conscious attempt to reshuffle communities to favor political incumbents. According to the study, Democrats and Republicans alike have been guilty of gerrymandering in cases that pretty much let “politicians choose their voters.”

In New York’s case, redistricting is conducted by the state legislature, though Governor Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch are among those trying to change the rules and establish a non-partisan independent redistricting commission.

Mollenkopf noted how in the borough of Queens — specifically the Jackson Heights/Corona area — Asians tend to be juxtaposed between white and black neighborhoods and other ethnic communities. In an arrangement like this, he warned, Asians will be “manipulated by the [redistricting] process and played off against each other.”

UCLA professor of Urban Planning Paul Ong said redistricting can often lead to disenfranchisement of voters. He compared Asians in Los Angeles, who are scattered across the urban sprawl, and those in New York who live close together. In redistricting, communities that do not appear to be a “spatially defined population” are usually not judicially protected, he said. Most districts must be contiguous by law.

Ong said when Asians appear “large enough to influence the outcome of elections,” they would matter to the mapmakers. Fundamentally this comes down to the number of voting citizens in any given community–which can be quite different from the number of residents, particularly in immigrant communities.  Naturalization is a crucial first step to becoming a political force, Ong told the audience, adding that some Asians take the path to citizenship for granted.

New York union organizer and educator May Chen acknowledged that becoming a citizen is often a “wrenching decision,” but noted that Asians are now becoming citizens more quickly than before. But she said their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with attaining political clout.

“When they’re asked to naturalize so they can bring in their families, they’d answer ‘yes’; but when asked if they want to vote, they’d say ‘no’,” said Chen, an adjunct teacher of labor studies at the City University of New York. “They said they don’t want to do jury duty,” she quipped.

Chen said Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election changed Asian American attitudes, with many young people participating in the political process – from campaign organizing to registering and voting. The Asian community is now seeing heightened political awareness, she said.

Because Asians in New York don’t necessarily come from the same part of the world, don’t speak a common language, and are not always contiguous geographically, their neighborhoods are vulnerable to political fragmentation on the state and local district level, warned Mollenkopf. He suggested that coalition-building can be a safeguard in redistricting attempts that might diminish the political power of immigrant communities.

The same call for coalition-building was echoed by Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian American Center at Queens College. “All over New York, especially in Queens, major demographic changes are happening. We cannot survive if we separate ourselves from groups we live in. This intriguing process of becoming American is what’s going on right now,” she said.

Cristina Pastor is a Feet in Two Worlds business and economics reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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