Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel was appointed to co-chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)
President Donald Trump has picked a Republican Orange County supervisor to help lead a panel that advises him on issues affecting Asian Americans – an assignment that comes as Southern California’s Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese populations increasingly are vocal in opposition to the administration’s immigration policies.
Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant, was appointed earlier this month to co-chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The commission has counseled the past three U.S. Presidents on how the federal government can improve the well being of the nation’s fastest-growing racial group
But that commission’s role has hit turbulence during the Trump administration. Nearly two years ago, a month after Trump was sworn in, ten members of the then 14-person commission resigned, saying they opposed Trump’s planned immigration policies and anti-immigration rhetoric. Steel — a vocal supporter of Trump — is one of 12 new members picked for the panel, and Asian Americans in Southern California are curious what policies she’ll advocate.
On an immigration policy that seems to primarily target Latinos, Steel has sided publicly with the president.
In March 2018, for example, the supervisor helped lead Orange County’s effort to oppose California’s sanctuary state laws and voted for the county to join Trump’s anti-sanctuary lawsuit. Those stances later earned her an invitation to the White House and several appearances on Fox News. That same month, Steel and her husband – Shawn Steel, one of California’s three members on the Republican National Committee – greeted Trump on an LAX tarmac when he came to the state to see border wall prototypes.
But on policies aimed at Asian immigrants, Steel recently has shown a willingness to break from Trump.
Late last year, Steel joined other California Republicans in opposing the Trump administration’s plans to deport thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled to the U.S. prior to 1995 and subsequently committed crimes. That proposal has drawn protests in Orange County’s Little Saigon community, including from some Vietnamese American voters who previously supported Trump’s immigrant crackdown.
In December, Steel penned an op-ed in The Washington Times, urging Trump to reconsider the strategy. While Steel frequently contends that California’s sanctuary laws endangered Americans by releasing “criminal illegal aliens… to wander our streets,” she wrote that “deporting Vietnamese refugees who have committed crimes is not in the same category.”
“There were some bad eggs,” Steel wrote. “Deporting them is not the answer.”
Steel also noted that alienating Orange County’s older Vietnamese population – which once reliably voted for Republicans – would be a political liability for the GOP as the county trends further blue.
“There is never a good time to isolate and frighten a dependable percentage of one’s political base,” Steel wrote. “But no time could be worse than now.”
About 4 percent of the voters in Steel’s district are Vietnamese Americans, according to Political Data Inc.
Steel has been tight-lipped regarding how she’ll approach her new advisory position. Her office declined to answer questions about which issues or advice she’ll promote to Trump.
Meanwhile, members of the region’s diverse Asian American populations are split regarding Steel’s appointment. Some believe the supervisor will help convey the communities’ concerns to the highest levels of power.
“Michelle Steel was (one) of the earliest voices on the Republican side to take this position to safeguard Vietnamese Americans,” said Assemblyman Tyler Diep (R-Westminster), who emigrated from Vietnam with his parents in 1991. “There is not much else I can advise Supervisor Steel on because she is knowledgeable about the priorities of Vietnamese Americans.”
Others fear Steel will simply endorse a presidential agenda that they see as anti-immigrant and harmful to Southern California Asians.
“While it’s heartening that she’s taken a stance against (Vietnamese refugee) deportations, my confidence wanes when I hear that she actively opposed sanctuary laws,” said Reshma Shamasunder, an official with the Los Angeles office of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“Our hope is that she’ll listen to the public outcry and see the wrong pathway they’re moving down,” Shamasunder said. “If they don’t, that creates fear for Asian communities.”
It’s unclear where Steel’s loyalties lie on other immigration issues affecting Asian Americans. While Trump has tried to cut family-based immigration programs popular among Asian Americans, who often sponsor relatives to immigrate, Steel has remained mum on the issue even as other prominent Korean-American Republicans in the region have vowed to fight such changes.
“Her appointment was not necessarily a reflection of the community,” said Tammy Kim, co-founder of the Korean American Center in Irvine, which helps Korean immigrants apply for citizenship.
“It’s a great opportunity, but, from what I’ve seen, I don’t know whether she’ll truly seize it,” said Kim, a board member with the Korean American Democratic Committee. “I’m not placing a lot of hope.”
Kim and Shamasunder both said they’d like to see Steel advocate for increased federal funding for English-language education – classes that can help new arrivals eventually pass naturalization tests.