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Group looks out for voting rights of Asians in Queens

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Queens’ political nature has changed dramatically from a decade ago. A year after a round of redistricting has been completed, immigrant communities in the borough continue to flourish and old City Council districts have grown or shifted with new residents.

I spoke with James Hong, civic participation coordinator at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, about the community-based frustrations with the redistricting process, as well as policy initiatives that could potentially improve the enfranchisement of immigrant communities in Queens.

The MinKwon Center in Flushing, along with a dozen other Asian-American community organizations, formed the Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy to present a unified platform on redistricting of neighborhoods with concentrations of Asian Americans.

“We put together a pan-Asian coalition because we saw that many neighborhoods with flourishing Asian-American communities were being effectively left out of the democratic process,” said Hong, describing ACCORD’s efforts.

The coalition had brought large numbers to various public hearings on Queens’ federal, state and Council districts.

Regarding the Council process, Hong expressed concerns over the impartiality of the city Districting Commission, which was comprised of 15 individuals, eight picked by the Council and seven by the mayor’s office. He believes incumbency and political considerations shaped results in Bayside, where there is a large Korean-American community.

“Bayside was one of the parts of Queens that was most disrespected by this process,” Hong noted.

Hong thinks former Councilman Dan Halloran, who was vocal about the area, influenced the commission’s decision on the district lines for Bayside, which was split into the 19th and 23rd Council Districts.

“It was clearly by someone who didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind,” Hong noted, referring to the subsequent indictment of Halloran on corruption charges after the redistricting process was complete.

Richmond Hill, another Queens neighborhood targeted by ACCORD, had more of a mixed result.

Richmond Hill, which had been historically and arbitrarily divided by two districts, had its lines adjusted to better reflect the cultural and economic nature of the neighborhood. Lefferts Boulevard no longer serves as the boundary and the core of the neighborhood is now captured in the 28th Council District.

“The lines there are not perfect,” said Hong, “but it clearly took into account of the community’s concerns around Lefferts Boulevard.”

Speaking from his current role at MinKwon Center, Hong lauds Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to issue municipal identification cards to the city’s residents, including undocumented immigrants. A lack of identification prevents access to a number of city services and banking, as well as opening an individual to potential abuse by employers who benefit from exploiting workers who cannot provide a form of identification.

A continuing priority for organizations such as MinKwon is ensuring compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

“Korean-American voters are among the least likely to be English proficient,” said Hong. “We are glad that the Board of Elections has made greater effort to recruit bilingual interpreters and poll workers.”

Hong also tackled the thorny issue of allowing legal permanent residents the right to vote in local elections.

“In a place like New York City, where so many individuals are here and are invested in being here, the representation is for everyone and the mayor is the mayor of all,” he continued. “When such a huge segment of your population has no say in the representation but are being governed by them, you have to think about ways that people can have representation.”

“The designation of who can vote has always been a reflection of political and cultural norms,” asserted Hong. “Women were not voting only a few decades ago, and before that blacks and other minority populations were disenfranchised. It’s being forgetful to think that today’s ‘citizen’ status is somehow an immutable law in terms of voting rights.”

For neighborhoods that grow or change, the enfranchisement of immigrant voters would change the way political representatives regard their districts.

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