Why It Matters That First-Generation American Women Won Office

“We are an inspiration to our communities, but more importantly, we are the only people we can trust to fight on behalf of our communities.”

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Nov 7 2018, 10:19pm

Photo of Catalina Cruz courtesy her campaign.

On Tuesday night, first-generation American women from all backgrounds were elected to positions of power and influence across the country. Among the most high-profile wins were that of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who became the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, but women with ties to immigrant communities won seats on local school boards, city councils and state legislatures.

These victories are particularly remarkable considering the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on immigrant communities, including reports that the president intends to end birthright citizenship, not to mention the release of a racist ad prior to the election about the so-called migrant caravan. According to a 2016 report, minorities (including African American, Asian American, Latina/o and Native American) only held about 14 percent of all elected offices on the state and local level, despite making up about 40 percent of the public.

It’s important to point out, though, that none of the candidates elected on Tuesday won based solely on their immigrant experience. Sayu Bhojwani, founder of New American Leaders, an organization that works to create a more inclusive democracy by training immigrants and new Americans to run for political office, explains that, rather, these candidates won because “they were authentic and they showed up as they are. They told their stories; they connected to voters through their stories and made a case for why they were going to be strong advocates for their constituents because of their shared lived experience.”

From a policy standpoint, these new leaders are well-positioned to create important support systems for immigrants and people of color, Bhojwani says, especially “when national policy and rhetoric is working against us.”

“The lived experience of immigrant leaders matters now more than ever,” she continues. “We are an inspiration to our communities, but more importantly, we are the only people we can trust to fight on behalf of our communities.”

Here are a few of the newly elected first-generation American women who overcame various barriers to take positions of power.

Catalina Cruz

Cruz was born in Colombia and moved to New York when she was nine years old, where she lived undocumented for 10 years. She became a US citizen in 2009. Last night, she beat out incumbent Ari Espinal to represent New York's 39th Assembly District. She’s the first former Dreamer ever elected to the New York state Assembly.

"I never thought I would ever get to vote — let alone for myself," Cruz wrote on her Instagram account.

Padma Kuppa

Kuppa’s parents moved to the US from India when she was four years old. Last night, she won her bid for the Michigan State House of Representatives to represent District 41. Her victory against Republican Doug Tietz makes her the first Indian-American woman to serve in the Michigan state legislature.

Last year, Kuppa helped get a resolution passed in the state legislature to recognize Diwali as an official holiday. “We want to raise awareness of the Hindu community, its customs and traditions through the recognition of Diwali, which has been accomplished through this resolution,” Kuppa said at the time. “This is my home and I want to feel accepted for who I am in society.”

"I never thought I would ever get to vote — let alone for myself."

Anna Eskamani

Per the Orlando Weekly, Eskamani “walloped” her opponent Stockton Reeves last night in the race for Florida House District 47. She’s the first Iranian American elected to the Florida Legislature.

Last month, when Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested being Iranian would "be like, terrible," Eskamani called him out on his xenophobic comments: "As the daughter of Iranian immigrants who worked tirelessly to achieve the American dream, I can tell you that being of Iranian heritage is not terrible … We are a nation of immigrants and it’s about time Republican leadership stop race-baiting and furthering xenophobic policies that fuel a hateful agenda."

Farrah Khan

Farrah Khan grew up in Northern California but was born to an Indian father and Pakistani mother in Lahore, Pakistan. This year’s election is her second bid for a seat on the city council in Irvine, California. As of press time, she held the second most votes among a crowded pool of candidates looking to fill one of the two open seats.

Before the election, she told India West: “People have been dismissive of South Asian Americans, saying there’s no need to do outreach because they don’t vote. We need to change that stereotype.”

Young Kim

A Republican and former TV talk show host on a Korean-language network, Kim could become the first Korean-American woman elected to the US House of Representatives. While her race hadn’t been called as of press time, she led by 2.6 percentage points over opponent Gil Cisneros.

“My personal experience of being an immigrant, having gone through what this diverse immigrant community has gone through, struggling,” Kim told the Los Angeles Times. “Those are real life experiences that really helped me understand … the district.”