After months of focus on whether Republicans' immigration rhetoric will hurt them with Hispanic voters, Democrats are now using the issue to cast the GOP as hostile to another contested voting bloc: Asian Americans.
A pair of House Democrats expressed their outrage Tuesday at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's remarks the previous day that the problem of so-called "anchor babies" was more an Asian issue than a Hispanic one. Reps. Judy Chu and Grace Meng criticized Bush and the GOP in a phone call organized by the Democratic National Committee.
"What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed where there's organized efforts—and, frankly, it's more related to Asian people—coming into our country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship," Bush said.
Chu, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the explanation was objectionable and his remarks make him "unfit" to be president. "Let me say that Jeb Bush's remarks yesterday are both derogatory and offensive," she said. "This was even worse, pitting one group against the other. … The only thing worse than Bush's words toward Asian immigrant families are his policies toward them."
Meng noted that the GOP's "autopsy" following the 2012 election went into great detail about improving relations with minorities. "From their section on improving relations with Asian and Pacific Americans, the report said: 'We must emphasize during candidate training, retreats, etc., the importance of a welcoming and inclusive message, in particular when discussing issues that relate directly to a minority group,'" Meng noted. "If slurring the children of immigrants, whether Hispanic or Asian, is their idea of a welcoming, inclusive message, then the GOP has much more work to do than we originally thought."
Earlier in the day, Bush attempted to clarify his remarks. "I was talking about a very narrowcasted system of fraud where people are bringing … pregnant women in to have babies to have birthright citizenship," he said. Federal authorities reportedly have said 40,000 to 300,000 babies—many of whom are of Asian descent—are delivered in the U.S. each year as part of a "birth tourism" industry to gain citizenship rights.
While that may be a problem, the Democrats said, it doesn't excuse Bush's use of the word "anchor babies"—or his singling out of an ethnic group. "What is offensive to me, though, is that Jeb Bush is using a term that ultimately is used to paint a wide brush on the whole Asian immigrant community and Hispanic community," Chu said.
In 2012, according to exit polls, Asian Americans backed President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 73 to 26 percent, while making up 3 percent of the electorate. According to Pew, they're expected to grow to 9 of the electorate by 2050. In the midterms—where Republicans typically perform far better—the GOP won the Asian vote 50-49 percent in 2014. That may be harder to replicate in a presidential year: Pew says Asians identify as Democrats by a 65-23 percent margin.
And Democrats are clearly trying to stop the GOP from making inroads. "Why does it seem so difficult for the Republican Party to treat communities of color with respect?" Meng asked.
Jason Chung, the Republican National Committee's director of Asian Pacific American engagement, disputed the notion that his party was alienating this key voting bloc.
"The RNC remains committed to engaging all voters in all communities across the country. Competing for the Asian American vote is a top priority for the Republican Party," Chung said.
But Meng and Chu also blamed Republican lawmakers for the party's electoral struggles. If the GOP-controlled House had passed immigration reform when it had the chance, they said, many of the issues tripping up its presidential candidates would no longer be on the table. "The irony about all this is that we wouldn't be having this conversation today if the Republicans had allowed us to have a vote on comprehensive immigration reform last session," said Meng.
This article has been updated.