Alonso Parra / New American Leadership

Arizona immigrants polish their political dreams

A training conference, pioneered in the aftermath of SB 1070, spurs immigrants to run for office

PHOENIX — Eva Masadiego looks mildly nervous as she rises to deliver her stump speech the very first time.

Pitching herself to the be the newest member of the local school board, she tells the story of how her immigrant parents entered the United States illegally and sacrificed for her education. With the high school in Masadiego’s neighborhood in California besieged by reports of gang violence and racial tension, her mother was determined to send her somewhere better. At 55, her mother learned to drive and took the graveyard shift at a meatpacking factory so she could afford to buy a 1984 Chevy Cavalier, Masadiego said. The kids teasingly nicknamed it “the Cadillac.”

“It was so luxurious. You couldn’t roll down the windows, there was no heater, and the radio didn’t work,” she said as her audience chuckled. After school, she took a light rail and bus, then walked seven blocks each day to make it back to her house.

“I don’t think it’s fair that our kids have to leave our communities so they can get a better education,” she said. “I want to make sure our priority in our school district is making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Masadiego, 25, is not, in fact, running for the school board just yet, and the five people clustered around a conference room table, intently listening and jotting down critiques on her 90-second pitch, are not prospective voters. Rather they are participants and trainers at a political leadership conference for first- and second-generation immigrants — a kind of Lean In regimen for relative newcomers in the U.S. contemplating a run for political office. Organizers with the nonprofit New American Leaders Project (NALP), which runs the trainings across the country, hope that by the end of the weekend, Masadiego and her fellow trainees will be a little more ready to launch campaigns.

In recent years, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has shared with a national audience the tale of how his parents scrimped and saved as Cuban immigrants, his father working 16-hour days as a bartender and his mother as a hotel maid. San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro told the Democratic National Convention in 2012 about his grandmother paying for the hospital bills after his birth by winning $300 at a menudo cook-off. Most famously, President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign made his mixed-race heritage and family history — “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” as he said — a central component of his political identity.

Petra Falcon, left, founder of Promise Arizona, and Sayu Bhojwani, president of the NALP, encourage prospective political candidates to see their immigrant background as an asset in civic leadership rather than a liability.
Alonso Parra / New American Leadership

But Sayu Bhojwani, the president of the NALP, who helped pioneer these training sessions, says politicians who are intimately tied to the immigrant experience are still the exception rather than the rule. Immigrants are woefully underrepresented in political life, particularly at the local and state levels. Researchers working with her organization surveyed 7,382 state legislators nationwide and found that only 377 were Asian-American or Latino.

“People see their immigrant background as a liability rather an asset,” Bhojwani said. “They don’t even see the possibility that they can run … They perceive their race and ethnicity and quote unquote foreignness as a barrier.”

While there have long been candidate-training programs based on political ideology, Bhojwani saw a need to spur first- and second-generation immigrants to step into the political arena not just as volunteers, organizers and key voters but as candidates. She founded the nonpartisan NALP in 2010 in the wake of the passage of the now infamous SB 1070 legislation in Arizona — considered one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the country, which made the failure to carry immigration papers a crime — and similar statutes enacted elsewhere across the country.

“For years we’ve had allies representing the immigrant community, and although we have people who support the immigration agenda … unless we have somebody who is from the community who comes from the background of immigrating, we’re not going to be fully represented,” said Raquel Teran, who took the NALP training program in 2012 and ultimately ran for a state Senate seat in Arizona. “Allies are great, but allies sometimes can turn their back on you, and that’s why I think it’s important that we’re putting people from our own community in power to be our spokespeople.”

‘People see their immigrant background as a liability rather than an asset. They don’t even see the possibility that they can run.’

Sayu Bhojwani

president, New American Leaders Project

In addition to going over the nuts and bolts of politicking — securing key endorsements, fundraising and coming up with a solid political strategy —  NALP’s sessions across the country focus on storytelling and finding a way for would-be candidates to share the singular experiences of migrants with a broad range of voters.

Jessie Ulibarri, a Hispanic-American state senator from Colorado and one of the trainers at the Phoenix conference, instructs Masadiego at the stump speech workshop to tell voters how the story ended — with her graduating from college and becoming a fifth-grade teacher. He asks James Ojeda, 42, to connect his wife’s encounter of being detained and humiliated by police while visiting the U.S. from Mexico to local policies that could be used to avoid such situations. He extracts from Ernesto Fonseca, 44, a Mexican-American immigrant with great enthusiasm for local politics but an aversion to personal details, the story of how his family lived in poverty in a cardboard house in Queretaro, Mexico, before he went on to become the first person in his family to graduate from college and earn a Ph.D.

And be mindful of accents and speak slowly, Ulibarri advised diplomatically.

“Do I have an accent? Are you serious?” Fonseca deadpanned, through a thick accent. “I didn’t know that. Give me a couple of tequilas, and you’ll see where my accent goes.”

Colorado state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, standing, helps participants share their immigrant experience stories in a way that connects with voters.
Alonso Parra / New American Leadership

Much of the two-and-a-half-day conference is dedicated to addressing fears and psychological barriers about running for office.

Fonseca said he wants to run for a state Senate seat in order to represent the concerns of long-neglected and underrepresented low-income neighborhoods but worries about how to connect with the more affluent, conservative voters on the other end of the district.

“That will be a pain in the behind to really get across their minds I’m not here to fight about race and ethnicity and I’m not going to make your pretty, cute neighborhoods into a slum either,” he said. “We share a lot of the same values. We share a lot the same goals, but we don’t see them under the same light.”

Isela Blanc, 43, has toyed with the idea of running for a school board seat in Tempe but is anxious about how people will react if they find out that she once lived in the country without permission, naturalized when Ronald Reagan’s administration offered amnesty to 3 million immigrants in the mid-1980s.

“I am here. I am a naturalized citizen, and I had the opportunity because the education system looked different. There was amnesty, and I was able to go to Arizona State without any of these barriers that people who now come here face. The policies have gotten a lot tighter,” she said in a later interview. “I’ve learned that I have to find a way to share my story.”

Raquel Castañeda-López, the first Latina member of the Detroit City Council and another trainer at NALP, sympathizes. She was asked multiple times to run for office before she begrudgingly agreed in 2013, struggling to reconcile her image of what a politician should look like to who she was — a young Hispanic social worker who had long worked in grass-roots organizing. Even then, when she filed to be on the ballot, she asked the clerk for a form to withdraw from the race, just in case she wanted to back out.

“It was really that self-doubt and fear,” she said. “When I talked to people at their doors, I got it. I knew that I had to fight for these issues and make sure this is represented, but it was the political piece of fundraising and getting endorsements that would remind me of my doubt and me thinking I wasn’t qualified.”

Castañeda-López, 33, says she still struggles to convince herself she’s fit for the job even after being elected.

“I still am very afraid when I go to talk at the table sometimes. I very much still doubt myself in many ways, but I remind myself that it’s not about me. It’s not about my fears,” she said. “It’s about my niece, my mom. It’s for all those people who can’t be in the room.”

There are also unique pitfalls to running as an immigrant candidate, particularly in a conservative state where some bear prejudices against immigrants, organizers said.

Teran took the NALP training in February 2012 and ran for state Senate that year. Although she was born in the border town of Douglas, during the course of the campaign, her citizenship was challenged, and she was required to appear before court to submit her long-form birth certificate.

“We live in Arizona, and nothing is surprising in Arizona,” she said. “More than hurtful, it was distracting. We knew it wasn’t right.”

The same weekend that NALP participants were mapping out their political futures, the Arizona state legislature passed a budget, championed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, that withdrew public funding from community colleges in Pima and Maricopa County — a potentially devastating move for immigrant communities that rely on them, some activists argued.

Bhojwani said if the participants were waiting to be asked to run for office, the wait was over.  

“Consider yourselves asked,” she said. “Consider yourselves asked multiple times.”

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Immigration, Politics

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