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.
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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Authors' note: Some Disabled people use a capital D to denote community, the way one might write "Black person" or "Deaf person." In this article, we do the same where appropriate, so "Disabled" denotes a connection to the community, and "disabled" is simply an adjective.
Today, 25 percent of American adults experience some type of disability, and the Disabled community continues to grow. Research has shown the number of eligible Disabled voters increased by more than 10 percent between 2008 and 2016. Over the past few decades, the United States has passed many legislative bills supporting equitable voter access and signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Despite this, the number of disabled politicians is a staggeringly low 10 percent of sampled U.S. elected officials.
Women with disabilities are even more invisible. Although the CDC has found disability is more prevalent among women than men, Disabled women experience roughly double the rate of electoral underrepresentation than their male counterparts. Why?
RepresentWomen's latest report answers that question and identifies numerous structural barriers that prevent Disabled people from participating in U.S. politics.
A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office found that 60 percent of the 178 assessed polling locations had one or more barriers for Disabled voters. Meaning that, while the number of eligible Disabled voters is on the rise, they can't exercise their right to vote due to issues like the absence of a wheelchair ramp, an elevator or poll workers trained on accessible voting materials. This has serious negative impacts on their electoral representation.
High unemployment within the Disabled community (82.1 percent in 2020) and low socioeconomic status are a significant barrier for Disabled candidates. The high cost of U.S. political campaigns can often dissuade Disabled people from considering a run for office in the first place. Political parties even use these financial constraints to justify inaccessibility rather than remove the institutional roadblocks that Disabled candidates face. As a result, Disabled candidates can become alienated from their political parties. They will often have to cover accessibility costs themselves, which forces them to rely on informal support, opt out of key events or both.
Disabled women face additional and unique obstacles tied to their "intersectional disempowerment," a term coined by Dr. Kimeberlé Crenshaw meaning Disabled women face discrimination related to their disability and gender-related hurdles such as competency bias, distorted media coverage and the male incumbency advantage. Many also experience more layers of difficulties related to their intersectional identities, such as race-related barriers. Then, it becomes less surprising that of the 13 Disabled officials in the federal government, only three are women.
So, how can we improve elected representation for the Disabled community and, more specifically, Disabled women? Our report believes that political parties are critical gatekeepers to elected office, but their inadequate engagement with Disabled voters and candidates has contributed to the underrepresentation of the Disabled community. To reduce the persistent turnout gap between disabled and non-disabled voters, political underrepresentation of the Disabled community, and the gender gap within that underrepresentation, our report suggests a myriad of action items for political parties to adopt, such as accessibility funds and recruitment quotas.
Disabled voters, candidates and officials deserve an equal right to political representation — let's move beyond promising equity and focus on enacting it.
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