Immigrant Candidates See Historic Wins in 2012 Congressional Races

The votes (almost all) have been counted, the pundits have spoken, and history has been made: Immigrants were the not-so-back story of the 2012 elections. Seventy-three percent of Asian and 71 percent of Latino voters cast their ballots for President Obama. The impact these communities had on choosing the president is the main plot. But the size of the Asian and Latino electorate — 3 percent and 10 percent of this election's voters, respectively — also offers another subplot: the election of immigrant candidates to Congress and to state legislatures around the country.

More than 80 candidates from immigrant communities ran in 2012, and the election saw four Arab-Americans, 10 Asian-Americans, one Caribbean-American, and 30 Latinos win their congressional races. One race, in California's 7th Congressional District, remains too close to call, and might increase the number of Asian-American victories to 11. And in Louisiana's 3rd District, a December runoff might result in one additional Arab-American Congress member.

Although the numbers still leave major gaps in representation, the victors established many firsts for immigrant communities. Of the 10 Asian-Americans who are confirmed winners, four broke new ground.

Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, will become the first American Samoan voting member of Congress. Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, will be the first Asian-American woman to ever serve in the Senate. Rep.-elect Grace Meng, a Democrat, is the first Asian-American to represent New York; and Democratic Rep.-elect Mark Takano of California becomes the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress.

Among Latinos, of the 30 who won their congressional bids, four made history. Rep.-elect Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, a first-generation Mexican-American, will serve as the first Latino to represent the eastern part of California's Riverside and Coachella Valley areas — in a district that is 47 percent Latino. Rep.-elect Tony Cardenas, Democrat, will be the first Latino to represent California's San Fernando Valley in a newly redrawn Latino majority district that is nearly 70 percent Latino.

A 12th-generation New Mexican, Rep.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, will be the first Latina to represent a district that includes Albuquerque. And Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, a Republican, will the first Latino to represent Texas in the Senate.

Although these milestones are worth celebrating, the representation gap remains wide. As of Friday's count, the total number of Asian members in the 113th Congress had increased from 10 to 11 (and could be 12 if Democrat Ami Bera wins the California's 7th District). Yet at 6 percent of the U.S. population, Asian-Americans should occupy 31 congressional seats for proportionate representation.

Similarly, Latino members of Congress is increasing to 30, but given that Latinos make up 16 percent of the population, the total number of Latinos in Congress should be at 86 to be proportionate.

In addition, representation is only part of the equation. The arguably more significant role that new Congress members will play, whether from immigrant communities or not, is in supporting the agenda that President Obama outlined in his acceptance speech: "Reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system and freeing ourselves from foreign oil."

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