Underscoring Our Needs
The Presidents Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders faces an uncertain future under a new administration
By Joseph Hong
One of the last testimonies of the evening at the Los Angeles Town Hall meeting held last year, was that of a single Asian American mother, limited in her English skills. The woman described her frustration in trying to find information in her language that could help her better support her special-needs child.
And there was nothing, just nothing available for her, said Tessie Guillermo, a member of the Presidents Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Throughout the 10-hour marathon of testimony used to compile the national report A People Looking Forward Action for Access and Partnerships in the 21st Century, the personal stories covered a myriad of issues. But one theme remained constant barriers exist that severely limit API participation in government programs.
That came as no surprise to Guillermo. As the executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF) for the past 14 years, she has witnessed numerous Asian Americans who were shut out of the system. She even worried about her own elderly parents.
API commission members and other Asian American appointees in Clintons administration a team of advocates to remember:
Front row, left to right: Dennis Hayashi, API commission; Shamina Singh, API commission; Martha Choe, API commission chair; Laura Efurd, API commission; Kevin Thurm, former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services. Back row, left to right: Paul Igasaki, EEOC Commission; Rose Ochi, Dept. of Defense; Ngoan Le, API commission; Jonathon Leong, API commission; Lee Pao Xiong, API commission; Mike Patel, API commission; Susan Soon-Keum Cox, API commission; Jacinta Titalii Abbot, API commission. Photo by frank celada.
[We] had to deal with the healthcare system and [couldnt] assure ourselves that they were getting the right care, because they didnt speak English as their first language, Guillermo said.
Her work at the APIAHF was crucial to creating the Presidents Advisory Commission, and as a commissioner she has sat through two major town hall meetings, as well as other smaller community forums. Released last week, the interim report, based on those testimonies, gives recommendations on ways to break down the barriers that limit service accessibility. Whether the recommendations will be carried out, however, remains questionable. As of yet, neither President Bush nor his administration have indicated if they will support the commissions work with a budget or resources.
How It Began
In June of 1999, then-President Clinton signed Executive Order 13125, calling for an advisory commission and for coordinated federal government action known as the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The aim of the commission and initiative is to improve the quality of life and increase the rate of participation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in areas where they may be under-served in federal government programs.
The executive order sprung from a smaller Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) initiative, which examined ways to encourage APIs to utilize the departments health services. The APIA Health Forum was one of the organizations that worked with HHS on the initiative. Soon, Guillermo and others believed the program needed to expand in order to cover all departments in the federal government in regards to their utilization by APIs. Health advocates wanted a permanent program that would remain in place even after the Clinton administration left office. We wanted to make it a lasting institution, Guillermo said.
She added: It was really the White House that saw it could be something that could be bigger than health, and we embraced it.
It was the API community involvement, however, that brought the program to fruition. Seeing the community coming together for it to actually make it happen is a testament of what we can do for ourselves, Guillermo said.
Eight months ago, Clinton named 15 people experts in fields such as labor, health and civil rights to form the Presidential Advisory Commission. According to the executive order, the duties of the commission are to observe and to advise the president through HHS on ways to increase API participation in government programs.
The first chairperson of the commission, Norman Mineta, departed after he was appointed secretary of commerce. Since then, Martha Choe, the former director of the Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, has headed the group.
The commissioners have been deeply committed to the responsibility we have as commissioners, Choe said. We realize both the commission and the initiative are unprecedented, and they represent a remarkable achievement for the community to actually make a difference in terms of how our community is served.
Clinton appointed Shamina Singh to oversee the entire initiative as its executive director. Singh, however, stepped down this week, as all Clinton appointees have done since the new Bush administration has taken office.
For all of us here, it was actually quite daunting but exciting at the same time, Singh said. How often do you get a chance of doing something youre so passionate about from the beginning, to make sure that the vision of the president and the vision of those who formed the executive order, which was the community, are really translated to action?
The first step of the Presidents Advisory Commission was to learn from the API community through testimony what their concerns and problems were in accessing government programs. Next, came the commissions report.
At a White House press conference last week, the Presidents Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders released its interim report to the president and the public. The report stresses that federal government agencies must increase their cultural understanding of Asian Americans and must work to further protect the civil rights of APIs. A People Looking Forward Action for Access and Partnerships in the 21st Century, a 293-page study and 30-page executive summary, is based on town hall meetings in Los Angeles and New York, as well as informal talks with prominent API community and business leaders.
Fulfilling the first part of the initiative, A People Looking Forward documents the struggles of APIs in accessing government programs. Of the hundreds of submissions of testimony the commission received, 95 percent are referenced in the report, according to Choe.
The report is the first impression of what the commission heard and learned. Due to the large number of critical issues that were addressed in the town hall meetings and in letters received, A People Looking Forward attempts to identify and prioritize five cross-cutting issues.
Findings Are No Surprise
From the API community perspective, Martha Choe says nothing really surprising came out of the interim report. Like Choe and Guillermo, community leaders were already familiar with the issues.
Nevertheless, the commission says the report does serve an important purpose.
It was the first opportunity that we had to [talk to people] in the government who are interested in what the issues are in the API community, as well as committed in doing something about it, Choe said.
Shamina Singh was surprised to find that it wasnt that the federal government representatives were opposed to looking at the issues and looking into how to make government more open and accessible to APIs; it just seemed they had never thought of how they could do it.
With the Bush administration taking office this week, many are wondering if executive support for the initiative and commission will continue.
The commission first plans to meet with the new administration, according to Choe. After that, they hope to move forward the work of the commission, which includes a town hall meeting in the Midwest sometime in the first quarter. Choe has already sent a letter of congratulations to Bush, and has requested a meeting. At this point, though, Bush and the HHS have not responded.
The commission is still hoping to contact Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services designee Tommy Thomson, since it is his department that oversees the initiative.
Were hoping to ask our members of the Senate to ask Governor Thompson in his confirmation hearing if he would support the initiative and commit to an increase, Guillermo said. Were also hoping to ask Elaine Chao if she supports the initiative
we know Norm Mineta supports us because he was the first chair.
Said Choe: We are encouraged by the work [Thompson] has done with the Hmong community and the Asian community in Wisconsin, and so we believe that we are going to have a very receptive audience in the Secretary of the HHS. In that regard, we dont anticipate any significant changes in the course of the work that we started.
Choe also pointed out that she expects Bush to be receptive, as the priorities stated in the report are non-partisan. These are issues that Republicans, Democrats and independents have spoken about, she said. They are issues that will remain in whatever administration would take office, that I think we have to work collaboratively to help address.
Because the initiative and commission were mandated in an executive order, they will continue to exist indefinitely. However, for the two to have real impact, there needs to be a commitment from the president in terms of a budget. The Bush administration would have to renew monies for the initiative and commission and incorporate that into the budget each year.
Thats going to be the true test, cautioned commission member Jonathon Leong. We have the commission and well have the initiative, but if there are no resources to implement it and if the federal agencies dont designate a staff person or empower a committee to deal with it, then its just a shell of itself.
For the complete API commission report, additional information about the Advisory Commission, and the With House Initiative on Asian Americans go can be found at http://www.aapi.gov