Immigrants Need to Seek Political Influence to Change the Course of Immigration Policy
Photo by: Mstyslav Chernov
In the United States we are in the midst of one of the most heated election seasons I have ever witnessed, with immigration starring front and center of the debates. Amid the shouts and murmurs about the need to protect borders, families are fleeing violence, escaping crippling poverty, and pursuing economic opportunity. Rather than feeling discouraged about the tone and content of the current conversation, I find hope in recent conversations about inclusive democracy shared by the New American Leaders Project (NALP) and the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network (TILN).
In June 2016, TILN convened its alumni for a five-year anniversary gathering in Turin, where I shared strategies for increasing your personal power as leaders from communities of color. In December 2015, NALP hosted a panel discussion at the National Immigration Integration Conference (NIIC) in New York City with the Commissioner for Migration and Integration in Berlin Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Gabriele Gün Tank (TILN ’12), New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca (TILN ’15) and Professor Tom Wong of the University of Southern California at San Diego.
These events provided a necessary forum to exchange ideas about supporting immigrant integration, especially as our nations face similar impediments to welcoming immigrants into our democracies. The U.S. and European can utilize real, achievable strategies to combat xenophobia and fully integrate immigrants within our borders.
First, our countries need to ensure that immigrants are welcome and integrated into all aspects of life in their new home. For the long-term health of our nations, immigration policy must ensure rapid and efficient entry into economic life, access to quality education and language skills development, affordable housing and healthcare and social inclusion.
Secondly, we must encourage participation in our democratic process. At the NIIC Conference, NALP Board Member Professor Tom Wong, shared research demonstrating how campaigns and communities should reach out to “low propensity voters”, who are often immigrants and people of color ignored by campaign outreach efforts and therefore less likely to vote. Reaching out to immigrants empowers them by providing these communities the power to affect their leadership. Immigrants and communities of color also represent an untapped pool of voters for candidates vying for seats. The figures are telling; 27 million Latinos are eligible to vote as of 2016, up 17 percent from 2012 and 9 million Asian Pacific Islander are eligible voters this year, up 16 percent from 2012. In fact, one out of three eligible voters this year are African American, Asian Pacific Islander, Latino or another racial minority group.
Options for participation also exist for those in the immigrant community who cannot vote. TILN alumnus and New York Council Member Carlos Menchaca, now a member of NALP’s Board, shared the success of the participatory budget program. Participatory budgeting allows all residents, regardless of immigration status, to vote on how the district’s funds are spent, a prime example of empowerment and democracy in action. Residents are able to directly improve their neighborhoods, playgrounds, schools and other infrastructure by casting a vote for favored projects.
Thirdly, a fundamental way for immigrants to truly integrate is to hold seats as elected officials themselves. For a nation to be considered truly democratic, it must be representative of its people. In the United States, Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos (the two largest immigrant groups in the U.S.) make up 23 percent of the population, yet only hold 2 percent out of 500,000 available local and elected offices. In France and Germany, 19 percent of the population is of migrant background, but people of migrant backgrounds hold less than 2 percent of positions in their parliaments. Immigrants are largely absent from the table when policies regarding their communities are being created. When they sit on local, state and national government bodies, immigrants bring with them innovative ideas, a deep understanding of their communities’ needs and a drive to better the nation that welcomed them.
No doubt the outcome of the U.S. elections this November will set the direction for immigration policy in 2017. However, while all eyes are focused on the Presidential election, I am eagerly awaiting the results for local races from School Board to City Council to the State House. Why? Because 1) local elections are excellent entry points for immigrants seeking elected office for the first time; many immigrants leaders are poised to make history by winning seats never before held by Arab, Asian Pacific Islander, Latino or Caribbean Americans; 2) while Congress has failed to enact immigration reform, local governments have consistently created policies that support immigrant integration; and 3) local elections matter because they are a pipeline to higher office.
Today’s Mayor is tomorrow’s Congresswoman. Both Europe and the U.S should encourage this transformation toward more diverse political representation – because a government that is truly reflective of its people can be truly responsive to its people.
Sayu Bhojwani is president and founder of the New American Leaders Project
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.