Nonprofit Organization Aims to Encourage Immigrants to Enter Politics

As we progress further into this year’s presidential race, the debate over immigration policy spurred on by some White House candidates only promises to intensify. And for the 42 million immigrants who currently live in the United States, adding their voices, experiences, and perspectives to the conversation remains difficult. Despite making up more than 13 percent of the total U.S. population, the immigrant community is significantly underrepresented in the majority of state legislatures due to a lack of Asians and Latinos holding office. This is according to a report recently released by the New American Leaders Project (NALP), a nonpartisan organization that is focused on preparing first and second generation immigrants for civic leadership. Asians and Latinos make up the largest immigrant demographic groups, and this lack of representation at the local and state levels means that they are left without a pool of experienced politicians who can go on to run for congressional seats, where the fate of comprehensive immigration reform will ultimately be determined. But Saya Bhojwani, the founder of the New American Leaders Project and a lifelong champion of the immigrant community, is hoping to change that by encouraging immigrants to join the political system. [See Represent 2020: Toward a Better Vision for Democracy, by staff writer,]

Bhojwani’s commitment to improving the lives of immigrants was implanted at a young age. Though she was born in India, at the age of four, she moved with her parents to the Central American nation of Belize. She learned Spanish and attended a Catholic High School, while still celebrating Hindu traditions with her family. As she explains in an interview with NBC News, this early immigrant experience shaped her perspective for the rest of her life. “It was clear to me that we were different, but in a way that was very integrated.” When Belize gained independence from Great Britain in 1981, Bhojwani was a teenager, and became fully aware of the undercurrent of economic disparity and social justice issues in her adopted homeland. “There was this distinction between the business owners and the customer and that distinction happened to be ethnic and racial.” [See Turning Today’s Immigrants Into Tomorrow’s Leaders, by Andre Chung, NBC News, 15.Dec.2014.]

After majoring in English at the University of Miami, Bhojwani relocated to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in teaching and immediately felt at home amidst the diverse multicultural landscape reminiscent of her childhood in Belize. She began working with the Asia Society, a global nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the partnership between the people of Asia and the United States. She developed a relationship with the South Asian youth in the city and noticed that many of them were first generation Americans, struggling to find an identity and a solid path for the future. They inspired her to create the South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), a nonprofit devoted to connecting disenfranchised youth with positive resources such as mentors, tutors, and job opportunities, in 1996. By 2001, SAYA! had earned her enough recognition and influence to be named New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. Persevering through the impact the tragedies of 9/11 had on the city, Bhojwani continued to promote policies that supported the immigrant community, including language access services and confidentiality for the immigrants seeking them.

Although she had achieved success in supporting the immigrant community in New York City, Bhojwani knew that for immigrants to gain a voice at the national level, she would need to expand her efforts. She created the New American Leaders Project (NALP) in 2010, and the mission was simple, she recalls. “Let’s fix who’s in Congress. And one way to fix that is to work at the local and state level because that is the pipeline to Congress.” Aiming to the capture the “untapped potential” of immigrants in the political process, NALP nurtures potential immigrant leaders at the local level by providing them with training and guidance to navigate all arenas of the election process: fundraising, speech writing, and connecting with constituents. Bhojwani feels strongly that they need these additional resources because “they believe their immigrant status, their appearance, their previously undocumented status are all going to be barriers.”

While Asians and Latinos continue to be underrepresented in state politics, the efforts of Bhojwani and NALP are beginning to come to fruition. Stephanie Chang, a TaiwaneseAmerican who received support from the organization, recently became the first AsianAmerican woman elected to Michigan’s state legislature. And although she still has a lot of ground to cover before immigrants have an equal voice in the political system, Bhojwani remains steadfastly committed to change. “I think what motivates me, at least a little bit, is that everything does come from my own personal experience. I feel like if I see something, I have to do something about it.”


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