In a sign of the, “increasing power and significant potential within immigrant communities,” some 80 Congressional candidates from immigrant communities are on Nov. 6th ballots. They include Ted Cruz, a Republican who is expected to be the first Latino U.S. Senator from Texas and Grace Meng, a Democratic Assemblywoman from Queens, NY favored to become the first Asian American to represent New York in Congress.
Their stories and many others are highlighted in a report by the New American Leaders Project, a group that trains immigrants to be political candidates. The report hails what it calls “an impressive array of ethnic and partisan diversity across 19 states.”
The report, From the Community to the Capitol: Immigrants Flex Political Muscle in 2012 Congressional Races, looks at changing demographics and new approaches by both parties to attract immigrant voters. It also describes the power of redistricting to increase or exclude new minority representation.
When congressional seats were redrawn in 2010 some states gained seats in Congress due to an “increase in Hispanic or Asian American populations.” But at the same time, some minority districts were divided, lowering the chances for minority candidates.
In an interview with Fi2W, New American Leaders founding director Sayu Bhojwani highlighted the disparity between immigrant and minority populations and their level of representation in Congress. For example, there are 26 Latinos in Congress, but if it the body were to reflect the proportion of Latinos in the population the number would be 86.
Bhojwani, a former New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, says her goal with the report is to “increase the discourse around contributions of immigrants to our country,” and fight the “immigrant-victim narrative and the idea that immigrants depend on government support.”
The report takes a fairly broad view of who is an immigrant candidate. Bhojwani looked at both foreign-born and first-generation immigrants and their offspring, even including some third generation immigrant politicians such as the Castro brothers in Texas for whom immigrant identity is important.
“Immigrant friendly policy is good for large sections of the population,” she says. “Improving community involvement in the civic process is good for everyone.”
Not all immigrant candidates are running in districts with large immigrant populations. Bhojwani points to Republican candidate Mia Love from Utah who, if elected, would become the first Haitian American and the first black Republican woman in Congress. Similarly, Republican governors Bobby Jindal of Lousiana and Nikki Hayley of South Carolina are both succesful politicians of South Asian descent in states that don’t have large South Asian populations. They relate to voters, says Bhojwani, on the strength of their policies.
The New American Leaders Project, provides political training for immigrant community leaders. Since they started a year and half ago they’ve trained 182 African, Asian, Caribbean, and Latino immigrants in New York, California, Washington, Arizona and Illinois, states they’ve identified as having the demographics and infrastructure to potentially elect immigrant candidates to local and statewide posts. Approximately 10 percent of their trainees have run for office and several more are on the ballot this year and in 2013. In New York these include Abe George, the son of Indian immigrant parents who is running for Brooklyn DA and City Council candidate Jacques Leandre, a Haitian American from Queens.
Bhojwani wants her trainees to use their immigrant experiences in their campaigns to reach out to other communities, both immigrants and non-immigrants. She points to the use of immigrant narratives in both party’s national conventions this year as an indication that being an immigrant, often seen as a political negative can actually add to a candidate’s campaign.
“It’s not that immigrants have decided one party or another,” says Bhojwani. “Both parties can benefit by cultivating immigrant leadership.”
If Latino candidates win their races this year, says the report, there will be as many as 34 Hispanic representatives in Congress. The report predicts that the number of Asian Americans in Congress is likely to drop from 10 to 8. For Asians to be proportionately represented the report says there should be 31 Asian members of Congress.