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Coming to America: Exploring the underrepresentation of first-generation women in politics

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Saxena is a research associate at RepresentWomen and a master of public policy candidate at Georgetown University. Goral is the digital communications manager for RepresentWomen.

The American Immigration Council reported that roughly 44.7 million first-generation Americans lived in the United States earlier this year. Within this population, there were approximately 2 million more women than men. Despite making up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, first-gen Americans, specifically first-gen women, are hardly represented as a community within our political bodies.

Did you know that the first foreign-born woman was not elected to Congress until 1989? This is an intersectional issue. One is not entirely about gender, but an interplay between xenophobic policy legacies, exclusionary tactics, and the everlasting barriers for women and people of color in politics.

So, why are first-generation Americans, and specifically first-generation women, underrepresented in the federal government?

RepresentWomen's latest report answers that question.

In the past, a first-generation politician was a rich, white man who mainly immigrated to the United States during their youth. They had little difficulty assimilating, getting elected and being accepted by society. This first-generation politician's experience of the past is drastically different from what the immigrant experience embodies today. While it is clear that the four waves of immigration expanded and diversified the U.S. population, foreign-born political representation has suffered due to exclusionary legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924. These xenophobic and racist legislative legacies still impact immigrant policymaking today.

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In addition to legislative barriers, registration barriers for first-generation voters also significantly weakened individual community support for immigrant candidates. A study conducted by Pei-te Lien found that foreign-born Asian American Pacific Islander voters who did manage to get registered to vote were more likely to vote than their U.S.-born counterparts. Still, poor mobilization efforts often resulted in low registration rates.

Similarly, Michael Parkin and Frances Zlotnick analyzed Latino participation in the 2000 elections. They found that language barriers impacted registration rates more than turnout and that legislation like the Voting Rights Act did little to mitigate this issue.

First-generation women experience compounding voicelessness due to the intersectionality of gender-related barriers. These barriers include competency bias, biased media coverage and the male incumbency advantage, to name a few.

Our research shows that many first-generation candidates run as challengers against incumbents, significantly reducing women candidates' odds of winning. In the 2020 elections, 68 percent of first-generation women candidates ran as challengers; 7 percent won.

Together, these factors could explain why foreign-born women were not elected to Congress until 1989 and why only three foreign-born women were elected in the subsequent 10 Congressional sessions.

Though first-generation politicians are now 5 percent of all voting members of Congress, and though four out of five newly elected first-generation politicians are women, reflective representation has still not been achieved.

Now is the time for gatekeepers and activists alike to take action. Political parties should expand their mobilization efforts to all immigrant communities. Ensuring that first-generation candidates are recruited, supported and included. And, at this point, an inclusive approach for non-English speaking voters and candidates is just plain mandatory. It's good politics as well.

If the U.S. upholds its tarnished title as a "nation of immigrants," we better discuss this dissonance in our values. It is time we incorporate and modernize our notion of first-generation representation as a marker for diversity in American politics. It's time we represent first-generation voices.

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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