Community-minded new immigrants are wanted for jobs in lawmaking

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

Sayu Bhojwani, founding director of the New American Leaders Project

The year of 1957 stands out in the history of Asian Americans.

Dalip Singh Saund, an immigrant from India, became the first Asian American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 of that year.

A Democrat, he represented the state of California and served as a Congressman for six years until Jan. 3, 1963, a noteworthy achievement during the early years of the civil rights movement.

From 1903, starting with Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, to the present, a total of 43 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) have become members of the U.S. Congress.

Despite today’s downturned economy and low approval ratings.

For elected officials, 13 APIs work in Washington, D.C., as lawmakers following the trailblazing paths of Kalanianaole and Saund.

Sayu Bhojwani, an Indian American and founding director of the New American Leaders Project (NALP), believes more first- and second-generation immigrants should attend NALP trainings to learn what it takes to become an elected official.

She was one of five panelists in a session called “New Americans Represent! Immigrants as Elected Officials.” This session was held at the Fourth Annual National Immigrant Integration Conference in Seattle two months ago.

“I think the most important thing that people need to keep in mind is that you already have a lot of the qualifications necessary,” she said. “I think a lot of people think ‘I’m not experienced enough,’ ‘I’m too young,’ ‘I’m too old,’ ‘I’m too this,’ ‘I’m too that.’ But I think that just by being a member of your community and caring about what happens, you have a lot going for you.”

Working on issues concerning immigrant integration for the last 15 years, Bhojwani believed it was important for immigrants to not just cast their ballots on Election Day, but to also be on those same ballots.

She said, “We’re not always going to elected officials and explaining our issues, but I felt that if we were ourselves in leadership positions that there would be a greater possibility that a legislation that promotes immigrant integration could be introduced and implemented.”

Bhojwani also wants immigrants to remember that they bring a strong commitment to this country’s ideals, “which is the reason that we come here and that being in public leadership allows us to take that commitment to the country’s ideals to a different level.”

When Asian American immigrants are listed on the ballot, she points out, Asian American voters do respond.

Bhojwani cites the effects of Minnesota State Sen. Mee Moua’s campaign. “When she began her campaign, there were only a few hundred Hmong voters on the rolls, and by the time she got elected, there were several thousand Hmong American voters. And you know there is evidence to demonstrate that it was her campaign that mobilized new voters to come out and support her.”

Founded by Bhojwani in 2010, NALP is the only national organization specifically focused on preparing first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership. Fifty-four people of different ethnicities, so far, have participated in NALP training events held in New York, Illinois, and Michigan. California, Arizona, and Washington are possible additions for 2012.

Participants are trained in such skills as running for political office, working on campaigns, and getting appointed positions.

Without a foundation for a successful campaign, a candidate must exit a political race.

Sofia Aragon, an immigrant from the Philippines and a senior governmental affairs adviser of the Washington State Nurses Association, announced her candidacy in April 2010. She joined seven other Democratic candidates for Position 1 in the 22nd District (Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater) of the Washington State House of Representatives.

By June, she announced that her campaign had “come to an end,” two months before the August primary election.

That short period of time proved to be an unanticipated disadvantage.

“Part of the candidate process is that you want to get endorsements from key organizations like, for example, labor,” she explained.

“The labor community started rolling out their endorsements in May, so that it was like a month after I ran, and I didn’t have time to build those relationships.”

She realized before dropping out that her chances of winning had “significantly dwindled” because the labor community had endorsed two other candidates.

Passionate about health care issues in particular, she is considering a second run in the future.

“Part of being a successful candidate is you have to have your support system around you.”

“Running for office is really an invaluable experience because I think there’s a perspective that you gain when you’re a candidate,” she pointed out. “I didn’t have any idea how little I knew at the time, and there’s value in learning by doing.” (end)

For more information about the New American Leaders Project, visit

James Tabafunda can be reached at

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