January 17, 2012 | New York Times | Original Article

Year of the Immigrant


Although everyone is talking about the presidential election this year, I am much more excited about the role of immigrants in the politics of 2012. It’s not a year like 2009 when we waited anxiously for a new president and Congress to create a sensible solution for immigration reform. Those hopes are long gone. They have been replaced by new fears aroused by draconian laws that emerged from Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.

I worry, yes, but I am also optimistic about three trends: the growing importance of the Latino and Asian vote; increased access to the polls for new citizens; and the presence of “new American” candidates on ballots from school boards to the Senate.

Latino voter turnout and support for Democratic candidates in particular were part of a hidden story in the 2010 midterm elections. Ninety percent of Latino voters in Nevada supported Senator Harry Reid, giving him an advantage of 9.8 percentage points, according to an analysis by Latino Decisions. In other words, his advantage among Latino voters led to his victory over Sharron Angle, who was backed by the Tea Party.

In California, 86% of Latinos supported Senator Barbara Boxer, paving the path for her defeat of Carly Fiorina. In the 2011 election, Asian-Americans in San Francisco came out at a record rate of 50%, helping to elect Ed Lee as the city’s first Asian-American mayor.

These election results reflect only a portion of the potential influence Latinos and Asians can have. According to the 2010 census, only 11 million of 21.3 million eligible Latinos are registered voters, and only 3.8 million of 7.6 million eligible Asian-Americans are registered voters. In 2010, 6.6 million Latinos voted, the highest number ever in a midterm election. Among Asian-Americans, estimates indicate that 1.1 million voters cast ballots in that election. Groups such as Voto Latino and APIA-Vote are stepping up their work this year to ensure that even more eligible citizens will engage in the political process.

Latino and Asian voters will be able to go to the polls in increased numbers because of two new developments. First, the 2010 Census confirmed that demographics had changed enough in 248 jurisdictions that they “must provide language assistance during elections for groups who are unable to speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process.” One-third of the country’s citizen-age voting population lives in those parts of the country mandated by Section 243 of the Voting Rights Act to provide ballots, signs and interpretation in languages as diverse as Spanish and Hindi.

Second, the United States Citizenship and Information Service issued revised guidelines for voter registration last month, in an effort to improve the ability of new citizens to register at naturalization ceremonies.

The third, and most crucial, development for immigrant civic engagement is the growing number of new American candidates on the ballot for school and library boards, state legislatures and Congress. The number of Asian-Americans running for Congress more than doubled in just two years, from 8 in 2010 to 19 in 2012, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies. These races include three in which Asian-Americans are running against each other for the Democratic nomination — in Illinois’ eighth, Washington’s first and Hawaii’s second districts. In these races, voters to whom policy positions may matter as much as ethnicity no longer have to choose one over another.

Latinos in elected office have already increased by 53% over the past 15 years, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials; with senate races this year in Texas and New Mexico featuring both Latino Democrats and Republicans (including Cuban-American Ted Cruz), that number will probably grow.

New voters and a new crop of candidates mean new leaders. And in 2012, I’m also talking about a new type of leader, one who better understands today’s America, where one in five Americans is an immigrant or a child of at least one immigrant parent and where immigrant entrepreneurs start nearly half of venture-backed companies.

When I served as commissioner of immigrant affairs under Mayor Bloomberg, I served as a New Yorker, but with the formative experiences of an immigrant. Looking through that lens, I could help devise and revise policies in ways that native-born New Yorkers sometimes couldn’t. I understood intuitively what it meant to speak a language other than English at home or to be afraid to call the police to report a crime. My unspoken, instinctive comprehension of the needs of new Americans was a gift I brought to my position then, and I was able to reflect those experiences in policy with ease and pride.

I believe that a new crop of elected officials who came here as immigrants can bring this kind of awareness and richness of experience to policy-making arenas around the country. In Congress, increased immigrant representation may well lead to comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 — at least we can hope. But I am pleased that this time around immigrant communities are no longer waiting for the results of an election to determine how the policies of our country will affect us. Instead, we are helping to shape the outcome of those elections ourselves — as voters and as candidates.