When Americans were receiving their $1,000 stimulus checks in May, undocumented immigrants around the country were largely left out of receiving any means of financial relief.
This is the type of policy that could be different if there were more immigrants in elected office, representatives who could represent the wider immigrant community and make its important issues more visible. To have more immigrant voices heard is why Sayu Bhojwani founded New American Leaders (NAL), an organization that recruits people of immigrant heritage to run for elected office.
A new report released by the group highlights the gaps in representation in state legislatures around the country. While they’re often overlooked by national media, state legislators can have an immediate effect on people’s lives. And because many national politicians start their careers in these roles, state legislatures serve as a pipeline into national office. “If we want a more representative Congress, we really have to invest at the state level,” Bhojwani says. “If we have the right people, then we’re going to get the right policy.”
The report shows that “New Americans”—first- and second-generation immigrants—are only proportionally represented in four states, and they are not represented at all in nine. They represent 25.7% of the U.S. population but hold 3.5% of the country’s state legislative seats. What’s “most concerning,” the report states, is that visibly diverse states such as New Jersey and Connecticut have the largest representation gap in the nation. First- and second-generation immigrants of legal voting age are 17.8% of New Jersey’s population, but they only hold 3% of the state’s seats.
The report’s methodical breakdown by racial immigrant category helps to illustrate nuances. Even the states that have closed the gap have work to do in boosting certain communities. Despite relatively high populations of Black and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) immigrants in both California and Arizona, there’s only one Black immigrant state representative in California, and one API immigrant representative in Arizona.
While people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) backgrounds are often “lumped in” with white people for statistical purposes, this report created a category for them. That separation allowed NAL to show that only 12 states had any legislators with MENA immigrant backgrounds. (Representative Rashida Tlaib, who is a second-generation immigrant of Palestinian descent, railed against the lack of the MENA category in this year’s census.) Having more MENA immigrants in state legislatures would allow more Muslim voices to be heard, especially as Islamophobia remains a concern.
The stimulus check example—a “very deliberate attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants”—is similar in that immigrant politicians could have been key to having their needs met. While this was passed on a federal level, local and state legislators had a role to play in supporting those people and assuring them access to healthcare and services they needed without fearing deportation.
Barriers to running for office exist at many stages for new immigrants, especially first-generation, who need to develop financial stability for their families as a priority. And, even when they do decide to run, they are discouraged in early stages by traditional gatekeepers, principally party leaders and donors. The reasons they give, Bhojwani says, include: “White voters are not going to support you,” “your community doesn’t vote,” and “it’s not your turn yet.”
For the last decade, NAL has been trying to break that cycle and build the pipeline to a more diverse future Congress. The group trains immigrants in the political process, builds coalitions, and recruits standout leaders, supporting them through campaigns and even when in office. It also aims, in the long term, to reform the structure of the state legislature, to make it more accessible for everyone.
NAL has found that insurgent immigrant candidates can win against incumbents if they run good grassroots campaigns. In 2016, even as Donald Trump was elected president, 67% of NAL’s groomed candidates won. That included Isela Blanc and Athena Salman in Arizona’s 26th District, within Maricopa County, which went for Trump.
To solve imbalances in concerning states such as New Jersey and Connecticut, there needs to be less bias toward presidential and federal races, so that down-ballot state races aren’t ignored in “safe” blue states. More civic support and investment in these races—and not just every four years—would allow the state legislature to be reenergized with new candidates.
Immigrants are more likely to be Democrats, Bhojwani says, because there’s more chance of immigrant-friendly policies. (The report showed 230 Democratic immigrant legislators versus 27 Republicans.) She adds: “I want to be clear that I think the Democratic Party has failed immigrant communities, completely and totally. But the alternative is a party that is against our very humanity.” So, new candidates need to be unafraid of challenging the status quo and transforming the party, in the mold of Tlaib and other members of “The Squad,” now role models for many immigrants.
Bhojwani felt firsthand the impact her presence had when she was appointed as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs under Michael Bloomberg after the 9/11 attacks. During her two years in that post, among other accomplishments, she made protections and services concrete realities for undocumented immigrants, domestic workers, and non-English speakers. “Being at the table with someone helps them see you in your full humanity,” she says, “rather than just a caricature.”