Jonathan Okamura: Biden Commission On AANHPI Policy Was A Mixed Bag Of Ideas - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Recommendations range from listening sessions for nail salon workers to making it easier for COFA citizens to replace lost I-94 cards.

After a year-and-a-half of quarterly meetings and discussions across the country, the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders presented its draft policy recommendations in Honolulu. It was the first in-person session held outside the continental U.S.

My primary interest in attending the July 6-7 proceedings was to monitor how the commission addresses the problems and concerns of specific AANHPI groups, particularly those in Hawaii, rather than obfuscate them by invoking expansive and contrived racial categories.

On the whole, the commission’s 20 recommendations provide clear directives to the Biden administration on why and how to resolve critical issues and needs in AANHPI communities. However, some of the proposals seriously missed the mark on what otherwise could have been requested.

The panel was established by President Joe Biden in May 2021 as a major aspect of his White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. He appointed 25 members, who are predominantly community-based advocates and representatives, to advise him on “ways to advance equity, justice, and opportunity” for AANHPI groups. The commission co-chairs are Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai.

The commissioners represent much of the racial and ethnic diversity among AANHPIs, including some of the smaller groups that often are not represented in “API” organizations such as Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, Samoans, Hmong, Vietnamese and Sikhs. 

Hawaii is well represented in the commission and its upper-level administration. Commissioners from the islands include Amy Agbayani, Michelle Ka‘uhane, Kimberly Chang and Kerry Doi, although the latter two have not resided in the state for decades. The executive director of the White House Initiative on AANHPIs is Krystal Ka‘ai, who works closely with the commission and had an active role in the meeting. 

whiaanhpi, white house initiative on asian american native hawaiian pacific islanders, biden panel, summit, economic summit
The President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders heard public input on its 20 recommendations during a meeting in Honolulu. (Victoria Budiono/Civil Beat/2023)

The first day of the commission meeting at the State Capitol was devoted to discussion and voting on the policy recommendations drafted by its six subcommittees. The latter are Immigration and Citizenship Status; Health Equity; Language Access; Belonging, Inclusion, Anti-Asian Hate, and Anti-Discrimination; Data Disaggregation; and Economic Equity.

They can be assumed to represent the principal areas of concern and need for AANHPIs, as identified by the commissioners from their previous meetings in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago and New York.

The public could observe virtually but not participate in the proceedings on the first meeting day.

COFA Concerns

The first recommendation of the Immigration and Citizenship Status Subcommittee addressed my concern about focusing on problems experienced by specific AANHPI groups, in this case, Compacts of Free Association citizens from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. 

The subcommittee recommended that the Department of Homeland Security expedite and make more affordable the process for accessing and replacing lost I-94 cards, which provide proof of legal visitor status in the U.S. It also proposed that DHS waive the high $445 fee for COFA citizens who apply to replace I-94 cards because they have the legal right to reside in the U.S. and are not foreign tourists.

Further addressing my concerns, the Data Disaggregation Subcommittee recommended that the U.S. Census Bureau “include input from relevant and diverse community-based organizations (CBOs) when classifying various populations.”

Its second proposal included that the Department of Health and Human Services enhance “data collection methods to facilitate collection and disaggregation of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) data.” However, no mention was made of disaggregating data from Asian Americans, who are 12 times as numerous as NHPIs and include far more ethnic groups.

The subcommittee on Belonging, Inclusion, Anti-Asian Hate and Discrimination proposed a single policy recommendation for these critical issues, which increased exponentially in significance following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Nonetheless, it suggested that the federal government organize a “national arts competition and corresponding national ad campaign … to support policies that create belonging while combating hate and discrimination.”

Missed Opportunities

With all the financial and logistical resources available to the U.S. government, including those of the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, I really cannot understand why initiatives focused on directly stopping incidents of anti-Asian violence and systemic racism were not included. The subcommittee could have recommended greater federal enforcement of existing race-based hate crime and civil rights laws.

aanhpi, white house initiative on asian Americans native hawaiians pacific islanders, biden panel
Elmy Bermejo, a regional administrator for the Small Business Administration, spoke during a meeting in Honolulu of the White House initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders. (Victoria Budiono/Civil Beat/2023)

Another policy recommendation that seems like a hugely missed opportunity was submitted by the Economic Equity Subcommittee.

The first of its two proposals was that the Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services and Small Business Administration convene a national “listening session with nail salon workers and nail salon owners to discuss and address the economic concerns, health and safety issues, and labor rights issues culminating with … a national action plan to support nail salon workers and owners.”

While no doubt employees in this business face significant problems in the workplace, so do millions of other AANHPI health care and service workers. Why focus on this one limited area to advocate for economic equity when many more AANHPI workers are subject to ongoing discrimination, abuse and exploitation in many other industries?

Fortunately, the Economic Equity Subcommittee also proposed that the Department of the Interior consult with Native Hawaiians regarding mercantile licensing on Hawaiian homelands and develop rules for them to access such lands for mercantile purposes. Subcommittee member Ka‘uhane explained that Native Hawaiians lack these licenses because of the need to compete with other groups for them.

Standing Room Only

At the end of a very long first day, all of the recommendations, which included changes suggested and agreed upon during the discussion, were unanimously adopted by the commission members.

The second day of the commission meeting attracted a standing room-only audience at the State Capitol auditorium, at least for the first morning session. It included a listening session in which individuals could make two-minute presentations on problems and issues of concern to particular AANHPI communities to the assembled commissioners, who were not allowed to respond. 

Twenty people stepped up to the microphone representing much of the diversity among AANHPIs in Hawaii, especially Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and COFA citizens. Many raised issues included in the subcommittee recommendations, especially regarding data disaggregation, language access, and Native Hawaiian needs and concerns. 

A few speakers noted that the need for data disaggregation was made clearly evident early during the pandemic when it became apparent that Filipinos had the highest rates of infection and death, which were obscured by the collection and reporting of data on “APIs.” Among the problems faced by Native Hawaiians highlighted by some of the speakers are the high percentage of prisoners in Hawaii who are Native Hawaiian (40%) and the sex trafficking of Native Hawaiian women. 

After the commission recommendations are finalized, they will be transmitted to Becerra and Tai for their review. Those that meet their approval will be forwarded to Biden for his consideration. 

Asked about the likelihood of their recommendations being implemented, Agbayani, co-chair of the Language Access Subcommittee, said she wasn’t sure.

“For the past 18 months, the Commission met with key federal agency administrators to discuss these issues so that our recommendations to the President are well-informed and can be implemented,” she wrote in an email. “I am not sure of the chances they will be implemented, (but) I remain optimistic that our recommendations on Language Access are strong and important to implement.”

At this point, the task for the commission, AANHPI communities and their leaders is to apply pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that their recommendations are given a full and fair assessment.

The Biden administration will have primary responsibility to develop policy initiatives toward implementation of the commission recommendations that it accepts. One can assume that, if a Republican is elected president in 2024, any policy directives resulting from the recommendations will have a very short life.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

I appreciate this analysis but was struck by this particular passage:This landed with me as under-researched. In public health we learn to start small and expand. This is a group that's been partnered with extensively to analyze workplace exposures to airborne toxins and resulting health outcomes. These workers, despite being exposed to human bodies and all of their pathogens (both skin-and blood-borne) are given very little training or support by management in the $8.3B industry. A PubMed search will lead you to a review by Jenny V. Dang, Marie-Anne S. Rosemberg, and Aurora B. Le from 2021 that discusses the issues.

makikimangler · 2 months ago

Wow .... amazing journalist ... My myself being Hawaiian Asian Pacific islander ..have a lot a family who have to deal with COFA FEE and status us citizens

ShortyEleEle · 2 months ago

· 2 months ago

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