Posted on May 24, 2024

Immigrants Are Vastly Underrepresented in Elected Office. This Program Is Trying to Change That

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, PBS, May 17, 2024

Rima Mohammad knew going in that running for a seat on the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education would be challenging.

As a Palestinian American, a Muslim, a person with the last name of Mohammad, a woman, and a parent to four children, the first-time candidate knew she would face more scrutiny than her competitors. She was still surprised by some of her neighbors’ reactions as she went door to door.

“The stereotypes are real,” said Mohammad, who dresses modestly and chooses not to cover her hair with hijab. Some people would not open their doors. Some people were openly dubious. Others were confused by her appearance.

“It’s just very disheartening because you’re like, ‘Why? Did you expect me to come in my burqa?’” she said.

Mohammad campaigned with two other people on a shared platform, but she said she was the only one of the three accused of being a hidden Republican, a secret conservative, and a book banner, which she could only figure came from stereotypes of Muslims and Arab Americans.

“That was really upsetting because I feel like I’m a true progressive. I’m a liberal. I love everyone in the community,” she said.

Now, Mohammad is running for the Michigan House of Representatives to represent a district of 90,000 residents after the incumbent for her district decided not to run for reelection. This time, she took a leadership training conducted by New American Leaders to learn how to run for office and to develop how to tell her story. She had previously secured an endorsement from its sister organization, New American Leaders Action Fund, when she ran for school board.

New American Leaders is a national nonprofit nonpartisan organization dedicated to training immigrants, refugees, and second generation Americans to run for office and manage campaigns. It provides the necessary resources so they can step into their own political power, NAL CEO and president Ghida Dagher said. The first thing that NAL does is ask participants to embrace their immigrant heritage as part of their new American background, rather than shy away from it.

To date, New American Leaders has trained more than 1,700 people across the country, and of those, at least 500 are in the organization’s Elected Officials Network, its diverse alumni base.

“Traditional political wisdom is that you have to look a certain way, you have to come from a certain kind of background, have access to a certain kind of network,” she said. “And so we have helped them redefine what [the] political system looks like.”


Sayu Bhojwani, the first commissioner of immigrant affairs for New York City, founded New American Leaders about 13 years ago after she noticed the disparity in representation in elected offices, from city hall to the White House. “When our democracy includes people from all walks of life, it is much stronger, it’s healthier, and it serves the people better,” said Dagher, who has been with the organization since 2015 as a participant, trainer, and coach.

“Our programs offer training for folks who may have a clear idea of what they might want to run for, or they might just say, ‘Hey, this might be of interest to me, and I don’t know how to navigate it,’” she said.

This involves teaching potential leaders the nuts and bolts of a campaign, such as how to build a team, fundraise and engage around endorsements.

“We teach them how to message around [their immigrant heritage], how to tell their own story, how to speak about their values, how to put that in the framework of our democracy,” Dagher said.

In 2022, the average participant age was 30 years old, according to the organization’s own tally. Seventy-two percent of participants were women, 31 percent were LGBTQ+, and close to 30 percent were AAPI. They came from 21 states and the District of Columbia, representing different racial, ethnic, religious, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Immigrants, among other underserved communities, are vastly underrepresented in state legislatures around the country.

In its 2022 review of state legislatures across the country, NAL found that new Americans — immigrants, refugees, and the children of immigrants and refugees from a variety of backgrounds — held about 4 percent of the seats.

“Some states have zero new American representation at all, while others are doing much better,” Dagher said, adding that states like New York, California, Michigan had higher gains in representation overall.

But, overall, new Americans remain “significantly and severely underrepresented in all states,” she said.

The organization found that not one state has Asian American, Pacific Islander, or Latino representation in proportion to its population. To address this, the organization created a training specifically for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women. The program is conducted by AANHPI women, and the case studies are about AANHPI women.

NAL also found that unlike white state legislators, where men greatly outnumber women, new American state legislators have near gender parity, and Latina and Black new American women state legislators actually outnumber their male counterparts.


The biggest hurdles NAL has heard from trainees, Dagher said, is the “polarized political lay of the land that we are all experiencing,” whether it is racism, Islamophobia, or anti-LGBTQ sentiment.

“When we are all trying to build a more inclusive democracy, how do we show up in our own authentic way that helps people connect to us and fight these ‘-isms’ at the same time?” Dagher said. “Immigrants, refugees, new Americans bring a really rich and vibrant perspective that is needed in our policymaking.”


New American Leaders research found that new American candidates have to be asked many times to run for office before they decide to actually run. Many more Asian American women and Latinas said that they “never thought of running until someone else suggested it” than Asian American or Latino men and white respondents.


A friend once advised Mohammad to lean on her identity, her values, and especially her lived experiences. “‘That’s the one thing people cannot take away from you,’” Mohammad recalled.