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Q: Why is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrated in May?


A: In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the first joint congressional resolution to celebrate the cultural, social and economic contributions of Asian Pacific Americans from May 4-11. The dates were chosen to mark two important anniversaries in Asian American history. On May 7, 1843, the first immigrants from Japan arrived in the United States and on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was finished. Major work on the railroad was completed by newcomers from China. President George H.W. Bush extended the observance for the entire month of May. As a nation of immigrants, the fabric of our society is interwoven from people all over the world, including Asian Americans from the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the Pacific Islands. More than three dozen countries comprise the Asian-Pacific areas of the world and immigrants from these lands have enriched the diversity, culture, culinary experience, arts, industry, education and entrepreneurship in our country. From military service to scientific innovation, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have shaped our history and shared their heritage and achievements in communities and neighborhoods across America. Here in Iowa, Governor Robert Ray’s decision more than four decades ago to welcome refugees from Southeast Asia saved the culture of the Tai Dam of Laos. In addition to his humanitarian response to rescue the “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, he also orchestrated a Cambodian relief effort that reached from farm country in Middle America to the shores of Southeast Asia and saved countless people from starvation. Today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. According to U.S. Census estimates, the Asian population grew 81 percent between 2000 and 2019 to a historic 22.9 million people. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders grew 70 percent and 61 percent, respectively, with an estimated 1.6 million U.S. population. Meanwhile, reports and incidents of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans were on the rise following the COVID-19 pandemic. As the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’ve called for a committee hearing to examine the surge in violence against the AAPI community. I also led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to put the U.S. Senate on record condemning hate crimes and expressions of racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and applauding the U.S. Justice Department for agreeing to conduct a 30-day review of violence against AAPI and to beef up its capacity to track and identify hate incidents, review civil enforcement authorities and examine where more resources may be needed to support law enforcement’s response to these crimes. Our Senate resolution passed overwhelmingly and calls for vigorous enforcement to bring perpetrators of hate crimes to justice.


Q: What were your recent efforts on behalf of certain Pacific Islanders who have migrated to Iowa?


A: More than three decades ago, the federal government made an agreement with Pacific Islanders living in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, to relocate to the United States under what’s known as the Compact of Free Association. The arrangement was made in recognition of the sacrifices and circumstances surrounding nuclear testing conducted by the U.S. military in the Central Pacific for years following World War II. The compact didn’t grant citizenship, but allowed the islanders to live and work in the United States. For those who relocated here, the Marshallese were provided access to health coverage through Medicaid. That benefit was removed in the 1996 welfare reform laws. Since the mid-1980s, a handful of communities in Iowa has become home to a growing population of Marshallese residents. Many were hard-hit by COVID-19 and local hospitals provided their care. As Finance Committee Chairman during the 116th Congress, I worked to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States, including the Republic of the Marshall Islands, who were lawfully residing in the United States. During negotiations on the pandemic relief package signed into law in December, I supported reinstating access to Medicaid that was promised to the islanders under the Compact of Free Association Agreement. I’m glad this uncertainty has been resolved for the Marshallese residents who are contributing members of the local workforce and enriching civic life in Iowa communities.


May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Visit the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens in Des Moines to celebrate the rich diversity and culture of AAPI in Iowa.

Author: Charles Grassley

Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the United States Senate since 1980.