Sep 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

State legislatures see record number of first-generation immigrants

Change in naturalized Americans serving in state legislatures, 2020 to 2022
Data: New American Leaders; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A record number of first-generation Americans are serving in state legislatures across the country, motivated in part by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the policies of the Trump years.

Why it matters: First-generation Americans comprise 10% of the voting population in the U.S. They are among the fastest-growing portions of the electorate, yet are vastly underrepresented at all levels of elected office.

What we're watching: This year, 296 naturalized citizens serve in U.S. state legislatures, making up 4% of the 7,383 legislative seats, according to a new report from New American Leaders, a group that helps elect first- and second-generation immigrants to office.

  • That's up from 258 legislative seats in 202o, when naturalized citizens made up 3.5% of state legislatures.

The big picture: As the country's demographics change, both parties are contending to be the party that can build a multiracial coalition of voters and candidates.

"A lot of the gains that you see are in places where there are investments in new American leadership and new American communities — whether it is voter access or having new Americans on the ballot," Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders and New American Leaders Action Fund, told Axios.

  • New York had the largest total increase, adding 9 state legislators who are naturalized citizens. California added 5, and Iowa and Vermont each went from having zero to having one.
  • "That was a turbulent period in American politics everywhere. We had a lot of new Americans — that haven't necessarily been consistently part of the political process — come out to vote," said Georgia state Rep. Marvin Lim, a Filipino elected in 2020.

By the numbers: 90% of the naturalized citizens serving in state legislatures are Democrats.

  • 42% are Latino, 35% are AAPI and 15% are Black.
  • Eight states have no naturalized citizens in their state legislatures.

Driving the news: New American Leaders hosted a training this past weekend for first- and second-generation immigrants interested in running for office or joining a campaign.

  • Carli Fettig, finance director for Rep. Susie Lee's campaign (D-Nev.), provided a crash-course on the basics of leading a campaign's fundraising efforts, including managing call-time, staffing fundraising events and managing donor relationships.
  • "Every time I come to one of the trainings, I get a little bit closer to 'Yes! [I will run for office],'" said Florida Hoxha, a foreclosure prevention attorney based in New York City and one of two dozen participants in the program.

But, but, but: Although the number of immigrant lawmakers rose to historic levels in 2022, some decided not to pursue re-election due to barriers they faced while in office, including low pay and a lack of support for caregivers, the report warns.

What's next: The growing demographic of naturalized citizens could significantly influence the outcome of this year's midterm elections.

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