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Participating in the American Dream: How Naturalized Immigrants are Voting and Running for Office

In a recent virtual event hosted by BPC and the Heurich House Museum, panel member Jeff Alfaro, an immigrant who came to the United States at age 20 from the Philippines and started his own small business, expressed that gaining citizenship that allowed him to vote and have a voice in our electoral system was his biggest “American Dream.” This sentiment is often true for many foreign-born individuals who live, work, and pay taxes in the United States. Recent research shows that more immigrants who gain U.S. citizenship through naturalization1 are engaging in the U.S. elections by voting, and want to represent their respective communities by becoming elected officials.

According to American Community Survey estimates, 22 million foreign-born individuals were naturalized as of 2017. This figure represents 49% of the 44 million immigrants in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2019, 7.2 million immigrants became U.S. citizens through naturalization. According to BPC’s report on naturalizations, nearly 8 in 10 naturalized citizens are born in Latin America or Asia and Asian immigrants have the highest naturalization rates. The largest increase in naturalization rates between 2005 and 2015 was among Indian and Ecuadorian immigrants with eligible immigrants from Vietnam and Iran having the highest overall rates of naturalizations in 2015. However, as of 2017, naturalization rates among Mexican immigrants, who are still the largest foreign-born group within the United States, remains the lowest among any nationality. Among lawful Mexican immigrants who are eligible to apply for citizenship, only 42% had applied for and obtained citizenship by 2015. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the United States had 843,593 naturalizations in 2019, the highest number since 2008, when the United States naturalized over 1 million people.

Naturalization provides new opportunities for immigrants to participate in U.S. electoral politics. In 2020, naturalized citizens made up 1 in 10 eligible U.S. voters—more than 23 million naturalized U.S. immigrants were eligible to vote. The population of foreign-born citizens who are eligible to vote has risen by 93% since 2000, a much higher rate than U.S.-born eligible voters, which only grew around 18% during the same period. While naturalized immigrant voters make up an increasing part of the overall electorate, their participation rates vary. Hispanic and Asian foreign-born naturalized immigrants form the largest percentage of the naturalized eligible voter population in the United States. In 2016, Hispanics and Asian foreign-born citizens had a higher voter turnout than their U.S.-born counterparts; 53% of eligible Hispanic naturalized immigrants voters voted as compared to 46% of U.S born Hispanics. Similarly, among Asian naturalized citizens registered to vote, turnout was around 52% compared to 45% of the U.S.-born Asian population. However, overall, naturalized citizens vote at lower rate than native-born voters. In 2016, while 62% of the U.S.-born electorate turned out to vote while foreign-born naturalized voters lagged at around 54%.

In recent years, for immigrants who have naturalized, engagement in the U.S. political system has not been confined to voting but also running for elected office. At least 13% of voting members in the 116th Congress, which ends on January 3, 2021, were born outside the United States or were U.S.-born children of immigrants. There are a total of 52 naturalized immigrants or children of immigrants serving in the House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate. According to a report by New American Leaders, in states like Arizona and California, naturalized citizens represent approximately 12% and 27% respectively of their state legislatures, meeting representational parity in comparison to the percentage of naturalized citizens within the state population who are eligible to vote.2 In 2018, immigrant candidates running for office even garnered national attention when Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a former refugee from Somalia and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, became the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Omar’s refugee background also brought to national prominence the high number of African and Hmong refugees3 running for elected office in Minnesota in particular, and in the United States as a whole.

Historically, immigrant groups have seen winning elected office as the apex of integration into American society. The upsurge of African and Hmong naturalized immigrants running for office in Minnesota is reminiscent of the Irish immigrant population in Boston which elected its first Irish-born mayor, Hugh O’Brien, in 1885. When O’Brien won his mayoral election, the Irish population accounted for around 40% of Boston’s total population, but the city until then was still politically dominated by native-born Protestants. O’Brien’s election eventually paved the way for other first-generation Irish immigrants such as “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley to win elected office in the early twentieth century. Since then, Boston has elected many prominent politicians of Irish heritage, most notably John F. Kennedy, who was Honey Fitz’s grandson.

This history shows that current immigrant populations could change the look of elected government in the United States over time as they eventually participate in the body politic. Between 2013 and –2017, Minneapolis had the third largest concentration of sub-Saharan immigrant population in the United States.4 Furthermore, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is home to the largest Somali and Hmong5 immigrant community in the United States, most of whom have naturalized. This change in electoral demographics has resulted in positive election outcomes for foreign-born citizen candidates who have similar identities to their immigrant voters, such as the Hmong community’s historic success in Minnesota’s state legislature and Minnesota electing its first Somali-American woman to Congress.

An immigrant’s civic participation can come in any form and in different stages—including while they are permanent residents. Many permanent residents, although not eligible to vote or contribute to campaigns, serve on civic and local boards and institutions that contribute to their desire to naturalize and vote. Naturalization, however, is the sole means for allowing immigrants to engage directly in the U.S. electoral process, including voting and running for office—cementing their place in American democracy.

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End Notes:

1 Naturalization is a process that grants foreign-born individuals, who are lawful permanent residents, U.S. citizenship after they meet certain requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
2 The report states that these state need further intervention and disparities still exist within specific areas.
3 Including Hmong candidates who are children of refugees.
4 New York City and Washington D.C. had the largest population of sub-Saharan immigrants between 2013-2017.
5 There are as many as 150,000 Somalis and 72,000 Hmong immigrants living in Minneapolis metropolitan area.