Sayu Bhojwani

Immigrant voices make democracy stronger

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0:11

Good evening. My journey to this stage began when I came to America at the age of 17. You see, I'm one of the 84 million Americans who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Each of us has a dream when we come here, a dream that usually has to be rewritten and always has to be repurposed. I was one of the lucky ones. My revised dream led me to the work I do today: training immigrants to run for public office and leading a movement for inclusive democracy.

0:50

But I don't want you to think it was a cakewalk, that America opened its arms wide and welcomed me. It's still not doing that. And I've learned a few lessons along the way that I wanted to share with you, because I think that together we can make American democracy better and stronger.

1:10

I was born in India, the world's largest democracy, and when I was four, my family moved to Belize, the world's smallest democracy perhaps. And at the age of 17, I moved to the United States, the world's greatest democracy. I came because I wanted to study English literature. You see, as a child, I buried my nose in books, and I thought, why not make a living doing that as an adult? But after I graduated from college and got a graduate degree, I found myself moving from one less ideal job to another. Maybe it was the optimism that I had about America that made me take a while to understand that things were not going to change. The door that I thought was open was actually just slightly ajar — this door of America that would open wide if you had the right name, the right skin color, the right networks, but could just slam in your face if you had the wrong religion, the wrong immigration status, the wrong skin color. And I just couldn't accept that.

2:27

So I started a career as a social entrepreneur, starting an organization for young people like myself — I was young at the time that I started it — who traced their heritage to the Indian subcontinent. In that work, I became and advocate for South Asians and other immigrants. I lobbied members of Congress on policy issues. I volunteered on election day to do exit polling. But I couldn't vote, and I couldn't run for office. So in 2000, when it was announced that the citizenship application fee was going to more than double from 95 dollars to 225 dollars, I decided it was time to apply before I could no longer afford it. I filled out a long application, answering questions about my current and my past affiliations. And once the application was submitted, there were fingerprints to be taken, a test to study for, endless hours of waiting in line. You might call it extreme vetting. And then in December of 2000, I joined hundreds of other immigrants in a hall in Brooklyn where we pledged our loyalty to a country that we had long considered home. My journey from international student to American citizen took 16 years, a short timeline when you compare it to other immigrant stories.

4:00

And soon after I had taken that formal step to becoming an American, the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the immigration landscape for decades to come. My city, New York City, was reeling and healing, and in the midst of it, we were in an election cycle.

4:23

Two things happened as we coped with loss and recovery in New York City. Voters elected Michael Bloomberg mayor of New York City. We also adopted by ballot referendum the Office of Immigrant Affairs for the City of New York. Five months after that election, the newly elected mayor appointed me the first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for this newly established office.

4:55

I want you to come back to that time. I was a young immigrant woman from Belize. I had basically floundered in various jobs in America before I started a community-based organization in a church basement in Queens. The attacks of September 11 sent shock waves through my community. People who were members of my family, young people I had worked with, were experiencing harassment at schools, at workplaces and in airports. And now I was going to represent their concerns in government. No job felt more perfect for me.

5:38

And here are two things I learned when I became Commissioner. First, well-meaning New Yorkers who were in city government holding government positions had no idea how scared immigrants were of law enforcement. Most of us don't really know the difference, do we, between a sheriff and local police and the FBI. And most of us, when we see someone in uniform going through our neighborhoods feel curiosity, if not concern. So if you're an undocumented parent, every day when you say goodbye to your child, send them off to school and go to work, you don't know what the chances are that you're going to see them at the end of the day. Because a raid at your workplace, a chance encounter with local police could change the course of your life forever.

6:34

The second thing I learned is that when people like me, who understood that fear, who had learned a new language, who had navigated new systems, when people like us were sitting at the table, we advocated for our communities' needs in a way that no one else could or would. I understood what that feeling of fear was like. People in my family were experiencing it. Young people I had worked with were being harassed, not just by classmates, but also by their teachers. My husband, then boyfriend, thought twice before he put a backpack on or grew a beard because he traveled so much.

7:17

What I learned in 2001 was that my vote mattered but that my voice and vantage point also mattered. And it's these three things — immigrants' votes, voices and vantage points — that I think can help make our democracy stronger. We actually have the power to change the outcome of elections, to introduce new issues into the policy debate and to change the face of the pale, male, stale leadership that we have in our country today.

7:52

So how do we do that? Well, let's talk first about votes. It will come as no surprise to you that the majority of voters in America are white. But it might surprise you to know that one in three voters are black, Latino or Asian. But here's the thing: it doesn't just matter who can vote, it matters who does vote. So in 2012, half of the Latino and Asian-American voters did not vote.

8:23

And these votes matter not just in presidential elections. They matter in local and state elections. In 2015, Lan Diep, the eldest son of political refugees from Vietnam, ran for a seat in the San Jose City Council. He lost that election by 13 votes. This year, he dusted off those campaign shoes and went back to run for that seat, and this time he won, by 12 votes. Every one of our votes matters.

9:01

And when people like Lan are sitting at the policy table, they can make a difference. We need those voices. We need those voices in part because American leadership does not look like America's residents. There are over 500,000 local and state offices in America. Fewer than 2 percent of those offices are held by Asian-Americans or Latinos, the two largest immigrant groups in our country. In the city of Yakima, Washington, where 49 percent of the population is Latino, there has never been a Latino on the city council until this year. Three newly elected Latinas joined the Yakima City Council in 2016. One of them is Carmen Méndez. She is a first-generation college student. She grew up partly in Colima, Mexico, and partly in Yakima, Washington. She's a single mother, a community advocate. Her voice on the Yakima City Council is advocating on behalf of the Latino community and of all Yakima residents. And she's a role model for her daughter and other Latinas.

10:15

But the third most untapped resource in American democracy is the vantage point that immigrants bring. We have fought to be here. We have come for economic and educational opportunity. We have come for political and religious freedom. We have come in the pursuit of love. That dedication, that commitment to America we also bring to public service. People like Athena Salman, who just last week won the primary for a seat in the Arizona State House. Athena's father grew up in the West Bank and moved to Chicago, where he met her mother. Her mother is part Italian, part Mexican and part German. Together they moved to Arizona and built a life. Athena, when she gets to the statehouse, is going to fight for things like education funding that will help give families like hers a leg up so they can achieve the financial stability that we all are looking for.

11:21

Immigrants' votes, voices and vantage points are what we all need to work to include in American democracy. It's not just my work. It's also yours. And it's not going to be easy. We never know what putting a new factor into an equation will do. And it's a little scary. You're scared that I'm going to take away your place at the table, and I'm scared that I'm never going to get a place at the table. And we're all scared that we're going to lose this country that we know and love. I'm scared you're going to take it away from me, and you're scared I'm going to take it away from you.

12:06

Look, it's been a rough election year, a reminder that people with my immigration history could be removed at the whim of a leader. But I have fought to be in this country and I continue to do so every day. So my optimism never wavers, because I know that there are millions of immigrants just like me, in front of me, behind me and all around me. It's our country, too.

12:36

Thank you.

12:38

(Applause)

In politics, representation matters — and that's why we should elect leaders who reflect their country's diversity and embrace its multicultural tapestry, says Sayu Bhojwani. Through her own story of becoming an American citizen, the immigration scholar reveals how her love and dedication to her country turned into a driving force for political change. "We have fought to be here," she says, calling immigrant voices to action. "It's our country, too."

About the speaker
Sayu Bhojwani · Immigration scholar

Sayu Bhojwani recruits and supports first and second generation Americans to run for public office.

Sayu Bhojwani recruits and supports first and second generation Americans to run for public office.