NORCROSS, Ga.—Kiran Ahuja was treated like a cross between a movie star and a long-lost relative at Ashiana Restaurant in Gwinnett County on June 27. She was given so many keys to cities, mayoral proclamations, and small mementos that one guest joked she would need a new suitcase for her return to Washington.
Bucky Johnson, mayor of Norcross, before presenting Ahuja with a key to his city, said: “It’s important to find leaders in different communities who are willing to go across cultures.”
Ahuja is executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The event, “Building Georgia’s Asian American Future,” was meant to honor Ahuja’s work. The Georgia Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force and the Center for Pan Asian Community Service hosted the event, which was also meant to highlight the growth and needs of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
The host groups want Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to authorize a bi-partisan state commission of Asian-Americans to do a feasibility study to determine how to help the AAPI community, according to Farooq Mughal, co-chair of the Georgia Asian-American Pacific Islander Task Force.
The mood was jubilant, partly because immigration reform seems possible for the first time in many years. Demographic changes are altering the American landscape, Ahuja said.
She has “funny and fond memories” from growing up in Savannah, Georgia, where her mother sometimes embarrassed her with “immigrant bloopers,” like marching into a MacDonald’s and asking for a hamburger without the meat. Back then, her mother would approach every South Asian she saw for conversation, because they were so rare.
They are no longer so rare. “In one generation there has been a seismic shift in the U.S. population. AAPIs are now 12 to 13 percent of Gwinnett County’s population–and nationally 6 percent, the fastest growth of any ethnic group,” said Ahuja.
She said the purpose of the initiative she leads is to make sure the federal government understands and responds to the needs and wishes of AAPIs. For example, 40 percent of New Orleans fishing boats are registered to people with Vietnamese surnames, and her initiative tried to make sure they got federal help after the BP oil spill. President Obama told her “no community should be invisible to its government,” she said.
Gwinnett has become a majority minority country, with much of its growth fueled by immigration. Immigration reform passed the Senate the day of the reception, and is a vital issue to Asian Americans.
“Now the fight continues to the House. It’s an issue that deeply, deeply, affects our Asian community,” said attorney and activist Bonnie Youn.
State Rep. Pedro Marin (D-96) agreed with and expanded on her thought. Watching the Senate pass its immigration reform bill made an “exciting afternoon,” he said.
“I was glued to the TV at 4:00 [p.m.].”
Marin echoed Youn when he said, “Now the fight goes to the House.” Border security is not entirely relevant, he said, because “40 percent of people undocumented came to the country with a visa.”
“It’s not just Asians,” he said. Latinos, Africans, and others all are concerned with immigration reform. Marin is the highest-ranking Latino elected official in Georgia.
He was also glued to the TV in 2007, he said, only to be disappointed when immigration reform failed. But the Senate compromise bill is “an important message, a bipartisan message, something we don’t have very often.”
Elected officials, volunteers, diplomats, young artists, community activists, bankers, lawyers and business leaders applauded the potentially historic legislation.
Stephen Day, board member of the Gwinnett County Board of Registration and Elections, was among the minority as a native Atlantan at the event. He wrote in an email afterwards that he “found the event inspiring to me as an American.
“The United States’ multi-cultural heritage is one of our great strengths and continually re-energizes us as a nation,” he said.