Zhenya Li doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a Donald Trump supporter. After coming to the United States from Beijing in 1992 to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, Li became a citizen in 2003. She works now reviewing scientific grants for the Department of Defense as a subcontractor, and lives in Rockville, Maryland, a heavily Democratic suburb outside of Washington, D.C.
In 2016, Li joined a group of fellow Chinese-American immigrants to stump for Trump in the presidential election; what’s more, she helped established the Maryland Chinese American Network (MD-CAN), a group that opposes any legislation that would have made Maryland a so-called sanctuary state.
“A lot of people ask us, you are immigrants, why are you anti-immigrant? And we try to explain, we are legal immigrants,” Li says. “A lot of people spend a lot of money to go through this lengthy process. It’s not fair that other people can skip this process and get the same thing, and they may even get more benefits than us.”
MD-CAN got its start on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media network, when Li reached out to fellow immigrants—many of them dentists, engineers, scientists, realtors, accountants—she had met in both her political (she campaigned for Trump) and personal life (she is involved in parent associations). In WeChat groups, they grumbled about increases in crime rates, which they believed to be driven by MS-13 gang members; and higher property taxes, the cause of which they pinned on an influx of undocumented immigrant students coming into their local schools.
Shifts in U.S. immigration policy have long re-shaped the Chinese-American community. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively barred entry for all but a few immigrants from, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act reversed decades of exclusion and turned what had been a slow trickle of Chinese immigrants into a highly regulated flood. In 1960, there were scarcely more than 200,000 Chinese Americans in the U.S. Today, according to census figures, there are more than three million, the majority of whom are foreign-born and come from mainland China. The Chinese-American community includes some of the most well-educated Americans with above-average median incomes; half of all Chinese-American immigrants have bachelor’s degrees or higher. And it’s from this group that organizations like MD-CAN draw their members.
“I definitely think there is a segment of the Chinese community that is more conservative than people who grew up in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco and the director of its Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. He says that this conservative sector tends to be more middle- and upper-class immigrants. “They view America as a meritocracy, and they want America to be a meritocracy, and they think they’ve done everything to earn good things. And when they see that they work hard, and other people are getting ahead of them with favoritism, they get upset at that.”
In 2014, conservative Chinese-American groups in California successfully mounted a campaign against SCA-5, which would have reversed the state’s decades-old ban on affirmative action in public universities. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the group Chinese Americans for Trump, made up primarily of first-generation immigrants, paid for billboards and aerial banners in support of Trump and, like Li, used WeChat to organize supporters in Chinese. The Economist described their campaigning as a “coming-out party for conservative Chinese Americans.”