Some early sketches of redistricting maps for California’s state legislative offices have posed the idea of splitting up Orange County’s Little Saigon, weakening the collective voting power of its large Vietnamese American community.
These maps are only preliminary drafts, or “visualizations,” as redistricting officials call them. Differing sketches have rolled out in sets periodically over the last couple of weeks for public input, and some of those do better at leaving the area intact.
Redistricting officials say that diverging ideas about where Little Saigon truly begins and ends, and the need to weigh some communities’ cohesiveness against other criteria and varied public feedback, means hard decisions lie in store for the coming weeks.
The final maps aren’t expected to be approved until the end of the year. The first set of official drafts are slated for release Nov. 10.
Still, some say the hypothetical ones released so far chart sobering projections for how the area’s legislative representation in Sacramento can change.
Kevin Shenkman, a voting rights attorney from Malibu, raised alarm bells over some of the early drafts proposing to split or shift boundaries around the area, in a Thursday phone interview.
“I can’t think of any more cohesive and insular communities in California than Little Saigon,” he said.
Shenkman’s most famous for suing handfuls of California cities into shifting from “at-large,” citywide elections to district-based elections, which reshaped the electoral process in various parts of the state known to have communities long marginalized by local government.
“There’s no reason to (break Little Saigon up), and doing so would mess the rest of Orange County up,” he added.
One early drawing for new state Senate district maps, released for officials’ consideration the week of Nov. 2, proposed splitting the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove, both of which are known to be the heart of Little Saigon, into separate districts.
The other cities comprising the cultural district would be divided up between the two new districts, depending on where they fall, accordingly.
“Little Saigon should be kept together,” reads a Nov. 6 statement from Vincent Tran, a Community Engagement Coordinator for the community advocacy organization VietRISE.
Tran adds the area’s residents are “predominantly working class immigrants and refugees that face unique conditions that require the people who represent us to understand our needs and experiences, especially having the capacity to outreach in Vietnamese.”
The area has long been said to have one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam, commonly known to span the cities of Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, and parts of Huntington Beach and Santa Ana.
But as the community continues to branch out, other nearby cities like Seal Beach and Los Alamitos, for example, have come into the picture.
American Community Survey numbers from 2019 put the county’s total Vietnamese American population at more than 200,000.
The authority on the state redistricting process, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, has been releasing different sets of early map sketches over the last few weeks as it continues to hold public input meetings on the district drawing.
In newer drawings released by the Commission on Sunday, Little Saigon’s core cities appear more cohesive under the updated, hypothetical state Senate and Assembly district maps.
But there are still some changes, prompting complex questions about what Little Saigon’s exact boundaries should be.
Under the current 34th State Senate District boundaries represented by Tom Umberg, Little Saigon’s core cities have been kept within one ward. That includes adjacent areas like Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos, where Vietnamese Americans are known to have branched out.
The most recent Nov. 7 drawing for new state Senate district maps, however, proposes splitting Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos into a separate district, while Little Saigon’s core cities are kept within another to the east.
One state redistricting commissioner who lives in Huntington Beach, Linda Akutagawa, acknowledged members of the community have been expanding outward to other nearby cities.
However, she said “some input from Little Saigon has also talked about people being upwardly mobile, and, therefore, they want to stay in more coastal communities. So some visualizations are pinching surrounding communities like Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Rossmoor.”
Yet, she said the commission also heard input stating that those communities — “upwardly mobile, yes, but still English-learning and working-class” — being lumped with coastal ones “doesn’t necessarily serve their interests.”
Tran, of VietRISE, wrote that, according to the 2020 Census data, “the percentage of individuals who utilize a language other than English at home in Fountain Valley and Westminster stands at 41.9% and 65.1%, respectively.”
“This aligns more closely with the population percentages within Garden Grove (69.3%) and Santa Ana (80.2%) as compared to the nearby coastal cities of Huntington Beach (22.7%) or Newport Beach (18.9%),” Tran wrote.
The socioeconomic background of residents in Westminster and Fountain Valley are much more similar to that of those in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, Tran later added, while cities like Huntington Beach “have much higher median household income which will result in diverging shared interests and concerns.”
“This is what I mean, there are so many different nuances to the community. And we’re trying to balance them as best as we can,” Akutagawa said on Saturday.
On top of all these questions, there are six existing criteria that the redistricting commission has to abide by. They state, for example, among other things, that districts must have an equal population to comply with the U.S. Constitution.
“That’s part of the very complicated, multi-layered puzzle,” Akutagawa said. “We’re trying to also make sure in certain cases that similar communities will be with other similar communities (which aren’t exactly contiguous), even if it means stretching the districts in such a way.”
The Fall of Saigon in 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War, and the beginning of a new era in which Vietnamese immigrants, who had evacuated their country en masse and continued to leave Vietnam in the years after the war, spurred the rise of Little Saigon communities all across the U.S., including in Orange County.
This year, cries for electoral connectivity also rang out in the City of San Diego’s Little Saigon, namely calling on city officials to keep it a part of the City Heights area in their own redistricting process.
Akutagawa echoed a comment she said she heard at one redistricting meeting last week, which generally stated:
“We’re just going to have to just get comfortable with the idea that, yeah, there may be some communities that don’t go together (under the new district maps when they’re finalized).”
One group depending on and urging for Little Saigon’s electoral cohesion: Mobile home residents.
“Many Vietnamese seniors live in mobile home parks in Westminster, Midway City, and Garden Grove […] This population is becoming more vulnerable to displacement each year due to the rising cost of rent and living expenses,” Tran, of VietRISE, said in the group’s statement to Voice of OC.
The maps should “unite our communities who are facing similar systemic issues and require the same language needs, and maximize their representatives’ accountability to them, such as addressing skyrocketing rent increases and the displacement of immigrants and refugees.”
Another group? Nail salon workers.
A significant portion of that workforce lives in the cities comprising Little Saigon, wrote Garden Grove resident Caroline Nguyen, speaking on behalf of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, on Sept. 30 written testimony to state redistricting commissioners.
Nail salon workers, Nguyen’s letter points out, are regularly exposed to chemicals, toxins, and “cancer-causing agents” while on the job — “glues, polishes, acetone, and other products” which can bring about rashes and asthma, even miscarriages and infertility.
They also tend to earn low wages — “an average of 25k a year,” Nguyen wrote. “As war continued to drive an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees into the United States, many sought financial security by taking on low-wage jobs, such as those in nail salons.”
Due to these issues, “areas in which many Vietnamese nail salon workers live — Westminster and West Garden Grove — should be kept together,” Nguyen added, to ensure they have a say in state policy around workplace safety and wage laws.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is running behind because of the months-late U.S. Census data. The delays came due to both interferences by the previous presidential administration of Donald Trump and the Coronavirus pandemic.
Data from the 2020 Census ended up rolling out in August.
“That data is usually released in April; they lost four months of time working with this stuff,” Shenkman said.
In September, the Census Bureau released additional data specifically for redistricting purposes to states.
Shenkman also said the messiness is a byproduct of an effort to ensure the state’s system of voter representation is overseen by the voters — not the elected lawmakers whose election prospects depend on the shape of those districts.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission’s existence is a response to the concern that the process, in general, is wrought with divisiveness and efforts to draw wards in service of certain groups’ political gain.
In 2008, voters passed a ballot measure forming an independent commission of state residents, who aren’t elected officeholders, to draw California’s 40 Senate and 80 Assembly districts every ten years.
Shenkman said he agrees with the commission’s purpose of taking these decisions out of the state legislature, but “trying to get public input from 40 million people in order to draw a map that, in the case of the Assembly has 80 districts — how do you give any sort of credence to anyone’s comment at this point?”
Akutagawa said it’s a necessary pain to ensure redistricting remains an independent, democratic process.
“It is messy,” Akutagawa said. “But, at the same time, we’re also hearing from people who really appreciate being able to say something about this and for us trying to be responsive.”