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Sayu Bhojwani: How immigrant voices make democracy stronger

September 7, 2016

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."

Sayu Bhojwani - Immigration scholar
Sayu Bhojwani recruits and supports first and second generation Americans to run for public office. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Good evening.
00:12
My journey to this stage
00:14
began when I came to America
00:16
at the age of 17.
00:18
You see, I'm one
of the 84 million Americans
00:21
who are immigrants
00:24
or children of immigrants.
00:25
Each of us has a dream when we come here,
00:28
a dream that usually has to be rewritten
00:32
and always has to be repurposed.
00:35
I was one of the lucky ones.
00:38
My revised dream
led me to the work I do today:
00:40
training immigrants
to run for public office
00:44
and leading a movement
for inclusive democracy.
00:47
But I don't want you to think
it was a cakewalk,
00:50
that America opened its arms wide
and welcomed me.
00:53
It's still not doing that.
00:57
And I've learned
a few lessons along the way
00:59
that I wanted to share with you,
01:02
because I think that together
01:03
we can make American democracy
01:05
better and stronger.
01:08
I was born in India,
01:11
the world's largest democracy,
01:12
and when I was four,
01:15
my family moved to Belize,
01:17
the world's smallest democracy perhaps.
01:18
And at the age of 17,
01:23
I moved to the United States,
01:24
the world's greatest democracy.
01:26
I came because I wanted
to study English literature.
01:30
You see, as a child,
I buried my nose in books,
01:33
and I thought, why not make a living
doing that as an adult?
01:36
But after I graduated from college
01:40
and got a graduate degree,
01:42
I found myself moving
from one less ideal job to another.
01:45
Maybe it was the optimism
that I had about America
01:51
that made me take a while to understand
01:54
that things were not going to change.
01:57
The door that I thought was open
02:00
was actually just slightly ajar --
02:02
this door of America
02:05
that would open wide
if you had the right name,
02:07
the right skin color,
02:10
the right networks,
02:12
but could just slam in your face
02:14
if you had the wrong religion,
02:17
the wrong immigration status,
02:19
the wrong skin color.
02:22
And I just couldn't accept that.
02:25
So I started a career
as a social entrepreneur,
02:28
starting an organization
for young people like myself --
02:32
I was young at the time
that I started it --
02:35
who traced their heritage
to the Indian subcontinent.
02:38
In that work, I became and advocate
for South Asians and other immigrants.
02:42
I lobbied members of Congress
on policy issues.
02:47
I volunteered on election day
to do exit polling.
02:51
But I couldn't vote,
and I couldn't run for office.
02:55
So in 2000, when it was announced
03:00
that the citizenship application fee
was going to more than double
03:03
from 95 dollars to 225 dollars,
03:07
I decided it was time to apply
before I could no longer afford it.
03:11
I filled out a long application,
03:16
answering questions about
my current and my past affiliations.
03:18
And once the application was submitted,
03:23
there were fingerprints to be taken,
03:26
a test to study for,
03:28
endless hours of waiting in line.
03:30
You might call it extreme vetting.
03:34
And then in December of 2000,
03:37
I joined hundreds of other immigrants
03:40
in a hall in Brooklyn
03:43
where we pledged our loyalty
03:46
to a country that we had
long considered home.
03:48
My journey from international student
to American citizen took 16 years,
03:52
a short timeline when you compare it
to other immigrant stories.
03:56
And soon after I had taken
that formal step
04:01
to becoming an American,
04:05
the attacks of September 11, 2001,
04:06
changed the immigration landscape
for decades to come.
04:09
My city, New York City,
04:15
was reeling and healing,
04:17
and in the midst of it,
04:20
we were in an election cycle.
04:21
Two things happened
04:24
as we coped with loss and recovery
in New York City.
04:25
Voters elected Michael Bloomberg
mayor of New York City.
04:30
We also adopted by ballot referendum
04:35
the Office of Immigrant Affairs
for the City of New York.
04:39
Five months after that election,
04:43
the newly elected mayor
04:46
appointed me the first Commissioner
of Immigrant Affairs
04:48
for this newly established office.
04:52
I want you to come back to that time.
04:56
I was a young immigrant woman from Belize.
04:59
I had basically floundered
in various jobs in America
05:02
before I started
a community-based organization
05:06
in a church basement in Queens.
05:09
The attacks of September 11
sent shock waves through my community.
05:13
People who were members of my family,
young people I had worked with,
05:18
were experiencing harassment
05:23
at schools, at workplaces
and in airports.
05:24
And now I was going
to represent their concerns
05:29
in government.
05:32
No job felt more perfect for me.
05:35
And here are two things I learned
when I became Commissioner.
05:39
First, well-meaning New Yorkers
05:43
who were in city government
holding government positions
05:46
had no idea how scared immigrants were
05:50
of law enforcement.
05:54
Most of us don't really know
the difference, do we,
05:56
between a sheriff
and local police and the FBI.
05:58
And most of us,
when we see someone in uniform
06:03
going through our neighborhoods
06:05
feel curiosity, if not concern.
06:07
So if you're an undocumented parent,
06:11
every day when you say
goodbye to your child,
06:14
send them off to school and go to work,
06:17
you don't know what the chances are
06:20
that you're going to see them
at the end of the day.
06:22
Because a raid at your workplace,
06:25
a chance encounter with local police
06:28
could change the course
of your life forever.
06:30
The second thing I learned
is that when people like me,
06:35
who understood that fear,
06:38
who had learned a new language,
who had navigated new systems,
06:40
when people like us
were sitting at the table,
06:44
we advocated for our communities' needs
in a way that no one else could or would.
06:48
I understood what that feeling
of fear was like.
06:54
People in my family were experiencing it.
06:57
Young people I had worked with
were being harassed,
07:00
not just by classmates,
07:02
but also by their teachers.
07:04
My husband, then boyfriend,
07:07
thought twice before he put
a backpack on or grew a beard
07:09
because he traveled so much.
07:13
What I learned in 2001
was that my vote mattered
07:18
but that my voice
and vantage point also mattered.
07:22
And it's these three things --
07:26
immigrants' votes,
voices and vantage points --
07:28
that I think can help
make our democracy stronger.
07:31
We actually have the power
07:35
to change the outcome of elections,
07:37
to introduce new issues
into the policy debate
07:40
and to change the face
of the pale, male, stale leadership
07:45
that we have in our country today.
07:49
So how do we do that?
07:53
Well, let's talk first about votes.
07:55
It will come as no surprise to you
07:57
that the majority of voters
in America are white.
07:59
But it might surprise you to know
08:02
that one in three voters
are black, Latino or Asian.
08:04
But here's the thing:
08:09
it doesn't just matter who can vote,
it matters who does vote.
08:11
So in 2012, half of the Latino
and Asian-American voters
08:16
did not vote.
08:20
And these votes matter
not just in presidential elections.
08:24
They matter in local and state elections.
08:27
In 2015, Lan Diep,
08:30
the eldest son of political
refugees from Vietnam,
08:33
ran for a seat
in the San Jose City Council.
08:37
He lost that election by 13 votes.
08:41
This year, he dusted off
those campaign shoes
08:45
and went back to run for that seat,
08:48
and this time he won, by 12 votes.
08:52
Every one of our votes matters.
08:57
And when people like Lan
are sitting at the policy table,
09:02
they can make a difference.
09:05
We need those voices.
09:07
We need those voices
09:08
in part because American leadership
09:10
does not look like America's residents.
09:14
There are over 500,000
local and state offices in America.
09:17
Fewer than 2 percent of those offices
are held by Asian-Americans or Latinos,
09:22
the two largest immigrant groups
in our country.
09:27
In the city of Yakima, Washington,
09:32
where 49 percent
of the population is Latino,
09:34
there has never been a Latino
on the city council until this year.
09:38
Three newly elected Latinas
joined the Yakima City Council in 2016.
09:43
One of them is Carmen Méndez.
09:49
She is a first-generation college student.
09:52
She grew up partly in Colima, Mexico,
09:54
and partly in Yakima, Washington.
09:57
She's a single mother,
a community advocate.
10:00
Her voice on the Yakima City Council
10:03
is advocating on behalf
of the Latino community
10:05
and of all Yakima residents.
10:08
And she's a role model for her daughter
10:10
and other Latinas.
10:13
But the third most untapped resource
in American democracy
10:15
is the vantage point
that immigrants bring.
10:20
We have fought to be here.
10:23
We have come for economic
and educational opportunity.
10:26
We have come for political
and religious freedom.
10:30
We have come in the pursuit of love.
10:33
That dedication,
10:36
that commitment to America
10:38
we also bring to public service.
10:41
People like Athena Salman,
10:45
who just last week won the primary
10:47
for a seat in the Arizona State House.
10:52
Athena's father grew up in the West Bank
10:55
and moved to Chicago,
10:57
where he met her mother.
10:58
Her mother is part Italian,
11:00
part Mexican and part German.
11:02
Together they moved to Arizona
and built a life.
11:04
Athena, when she gets to the statehouse,
11:07
is going to fight for things
like education funding
11:10
that will help give
families like hers a leg up
11:13
so they can achieve
the financial stability
11:16
that we all are looking for.
11:18
Immigrants' votes,
voices and vantage points
11:22
are what we all need to work
to include in American democracy.
11:26
It's not just my work. It's also yours.
11:30
And it's not going to be easy.
11:33
We never know
11:35
what putting a new factor
into an equation will do.
11:37
And it's a little scary.
11:41
You're scared that I'm going
to take away your place at the table,
11:43
and I'm scared that I'm never
going to get a place at the table.
11:47
And we're all scared
11:52
that we're going to lose this country
that we know and love.
11:53
I'm scared you're going
to take it away from me,
11:58
and you're scared
I'm going to take it away from you.
12:00
Look, it's been a rough election year,
12:06
a reminder that people
with my immigration history
12:09
could be removed at the whim of a leader.
12:13
But I have fought to be in this country
12:17
and I continue to do so every day.
12:20
So my optimism never wavers,
12:23
because I know that there are
millions of immigrants just like me,
12:26
in front of me,
behind me and all around me.
12:31
It's our country, too.
12:34
Thank you.
12:37
(Applause)
12:38

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

Why you should listen

Sayu Bhojwani served as New York City's first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action, a community-based organization in Queens. Since 2010, she has served as Founder and President of The New American Leaders Project, which is based in New York City.

Bhojwani's work to build a more inclusive democracy has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and in the New York Times. She has shared her personal journey in The National and contributes frequently to the The Huffington Post and Medium.

Bhojwani earned a PhD in Politics and Education from Columbia University, where her research focused on immigrant political participation. She is a Visiting Scholar at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

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