A Tribute to the Voices of Our Immigrant Mothers

In a timely tribute, I want to honor my mother, who this year will vote for the first time in the United States. She will cast her vote in Florida, where I hope onerous voter-identification laws will not prevent her from exercising her newly acquired right.

Only a decade ago, I too voted for the first time as an American citizen. But unlike me, my mother was not a college graduate or highly proficient in English when she took her citizenship exam. She learned to answer questions that native-born Americans often don't know the answers to: the names of her state and local elected officials, for example.

Like me, she registered to vote at her citizenship ceremony, where many like us are now guaranteed the opportunity to vote, as a result of a guidance issued in October 2011 by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

My mother, like so many immigrant women before her, was the champion of ensuring her family's integration into a new homeland.

She came to the U.S. with us when our educational needs were not adequately being met in Belize, where I grew up; my father stayed behind. She learned to drive in Florida to ensure that she would not be dependent on anyone to get around.

Recently, she learned how to use a computer at her local community center; and yes, she even friended me on Facebook.

{{ BIZOBJ (photo: 17603) }}In 2010, the gap in voter participation between white women and Latinas was 18 percent, and between white and Asian women, it was 14 percent.

But that gap in voting decreases significantly when we consider only registered voters — to 10 percent between Asians and whites, and 9 percent between Latinas and whites. So when immigrant women are registered, they are almost as likely to vote as their native-born counterparts.

{{ BIZOBJ (photo: 17604) }}Immigrant women, furthermore, are more likely than men to be citizens. In a 2009 study by New American Media, the top 10 countries of origin by citizenship were: Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, China, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Canada, El Salvador, India, and Mexico. In all but the Vietnamese community, a greater percentage of women then men are citizens. And for most women, the top reason they become citizens is to be able to vote.

At the New American Leaders Project, in less than a year we have trained 160 individuals to run for office, and 54 percent of our participants have been women. And around the country, these women are running for offices from school board to state Senate. In Dripping Springs, Texas, Thao Phan is a candidate for school board, and in Phoenix, Ariz., Raquel Teran is seeking a seat in the state Senate.

A Vietnamese-American family therapist and Mexican-American community organizer, respectively, Thao and Raquel are bringing new voices to our democratic process — the voices of their professions, their ethnic communities, and their experiences as women.

Immigrant women who are on the ballot can serve as catalysts for their communities, as former state Sen. Mee Moua did in 2002, when her campaign registered more than 10,000 new voters from the Hmong community in Minnesota.

Immigrant women in office promote the implementation of policies that serve their communities' interests, as Jane Kim has done first on the San Francisco Board of Education and now as the city's District 6 supervisor.

Although they are much less well-known than Mee or Jane, my mother and her peers — from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Middle East — are helping to knit a new pattern into the fabric of American democracy.

Rich with sacrifice, compassion, and enthusiasm, immigrant women's participation will help us create the more representative and responsive government that drew many of us here in the first place.

Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project (NALP). She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.

The New American Leaders Project (NALP) is the only organization in the country specifically focused on preparing first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership. NALP recruits recognized individuals with a track record of civic involvement and trains them in the key skills needed for leadership from the community to the Capitol.