Congressmen Frank Horton of New York and Norman Mineta of California proposed a resolution in June 1977 to create Asian Pacific Heritage Week, observed on the first of May each year. Hawaii senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye submitted similar bills in the Senate. The initial celebration was held in May 1979 after President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution into law the following year to create the yearly event. President George H. W. Bush declared May of 1992 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The yearly event pays tribute to the numerous achievements, contributions, and rich cultural heritage of Native Hawaiians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islander Americans.

The United States recognizes the contributions, accomplishments, and cultures of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, including East, Southeast, and South Asia; —and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. May was selected to celebrate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the United States in May 1843 and the anniversary of the transcontinental railroad's completion on May 10, 1869, which Chinese immigrants primarily constructed. The month-long celebration seeks to honor the varied experiences and backgrounds of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders while also bringing attention to their significant influence on the development of American culture.