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Indian-Americans energized by Kamala Harris' presidential bid

Democrat looks to win voters in one of the fastest growing demographics in US

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) arrives at the U.S. Capitol before the start of the day's Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington on Jan. 31.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- Kamala Harris has brought excitement to the Asian American community in her bid to not only become the first woman to become U.S. president, but the first African American woman, the first Asian American and the first Indian American to take up the Oval Office.

Harris, 54, whose name Kamala means "lotus" in Sanskrit, is a relative newcomer to national politics after winning a U.S. Senate seat in California in 2016 after serving as the state's attorney general for six years. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from India while her father immigrated from Jamaica. Her decision to run for president in January created a swell of excitement among Asian Americans and the country's other minority groups.

"This is very exciting for many communities; communities of color, women, and Democrats," said Aruna Miller, executive director of IMPACT, a Washington-based organization that supports Indian Americans running for office. "They write about Senator Harris in many of the Indian American publications and media outlets here."

But despite that fanfare, Harris is not well known among a group she belongs to: a fast-growing Indian American community. According to a 2018 Asian-American voter survey by research group AAPI Data, a poll of 1,316 registered voters who identify as Asian American, while 52% of Indian American voters had a favorable view of Harris, 30% had never heard of her or did not know much about her.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, the founder and director of AAPI Data, said the survey was conducted six months ago and things may have changed since then.

"I imagine now with all of the media attention, her name recognition is going up in the Indian community," he said.

Indian Americans are part of rapidly growing and more politically influential Asian American community. In its 2017 report, the Pew Research Center found the US Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015, from 11.9 million to 20.4 million, the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group. The population of Indian Americans is 4 million as of 2015, making it the second largest group after Chinese Americans. Asian Americans are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country, surpassing Hispanics in 2055, the report says.

That increase has been reflected in government, from Capitol Hill to city halls. Asian American members of Congress increased from five in 2000 to 18 last year. Five of the 18 are Indian Americans, including Harris. Miller estimated that Indian Americans who ran for federal, state and local offices in 2018 almost doubled compared with those who ran in 2016.

Ramakrishnan said there has been an increase in Indian American voters and political involvement by Indian Americans.

"You have a pretty long history of Japanese Americans involved in politics and Chinese and Filipinos. What you are seeing now is Indian Americans catching up - and catching up in a pretty big way," Ramakrishnan said, adding there were many factors behind the rapidly increasing political presence of Indian Americans. "Coming from a democratic country helps. They're more likely to get politically involved. You also have high English proficiency. And they also tend to be wealthier and more highly educated."

Harris seems to understand the importance of attracting Indian American voters, highlighting that part of her heritage in an interview with the Washington Post in February.

"I grew up with a great deal of pride and understanding about my Indian heritage and culture," she said, while emphasizing her efforts to stop discrimination and violence against South Asians after the September 11 attacks.

"I was very active in fighting to make sure that community was not the subject of hate and bias and ill treatment," she said.

She has won praise from immigration activists for her stance on immigration, something both Miller and Ramakrishnan say is a top issue for Indian Americans. For example, last year, she sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security urging them not to revoke employment authorization for spouses of H1-B visa holders after President Donald Trump's administration announced it would cancel the program installed by former president Barack Obama. H1-B visas are given to highly skilled foreign workers, most of whom are South Asian. She also been a vocal supporter of the so-called "Dreamers", immigrants who were brought to the US illegally as children.

While Harris reaches out to Indian Americans, she also needs to take into account the needs of all Americans, Miller said.

"Indian Americans are not a monolithic voting bloc or they're only going to vote for somebody because of shared identity. They are going to vote on the record on that person and what they will bring to the future of all Americans."

Harris is not the first Indian American to have their name tied to presidential aspirations. In 2016, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, the country's first Indian American governor, sought the Republican presidential nomination, although he dropped out before the primaries.

Nikki Haley, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and the first Indian American to hold a cabinet-level position, has popped up as a potential Republican candidate for president and vice-president for years.

Ramakrishnan said he thinks Harris has a far greater advantage in terms of political contribution from Indian Americans than Jindal and Haley. "Most Indian Americans are Democrats - and they're also progressive on a lot of issues. In the case of Bobby Jindal there wasn't much pride because he in many ways was running away from his Indian identity and he was also very, very conservative. Nikki Haley is not as conservative but she's a Republican. There are still a lot of political differences," he said.

"Kamala Harris' party and political preferences are much more in line with the majority of the Indian population. There is a big difference."

To cultivate Indian American vote, both Miller and Ramakrishnan said Harris should talk about issues that are important for the community such as immigration.

"The kind of racism, or racial conservatism, that's in the political atmosphere now, I think if there's a strong stance against that I think she will get a lot of support in the Asian American community," Ramakrishnan said.

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