Are Immigrants The Key To A Stronger Democracy?

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 4, 2016 8:07 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Democracy On Trial

About Sayu Bhojwani's TED Talk

Sayu Bhojwani urges her fellow immigrants to participate and find their own power in the political process in order to make democracy stronger.

About Sayu Bhojwani

Sayu Bhojwani served as New York City's first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action, a community-based organization in Queens. Since 2010, she has served as Founder and President of The New American Leaders Project, which is based in New York City.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Do you think that the natural system for organization and for governance is democracy?

SAYU BHOJWANI: Look, I mean, I live in a home with a husband and a 10-year-old child. Democracy is not natural. I think you want to have things your way. That is really what we want as individuals. Is democracy natural? No, it's definitely a learning process.

RAZ: This is Sayu Bhojwani. She was born in India.

BHOJWANI: I left India when I was four and moved to Belize.

RAZ: Sayu came to the U.S. for the same reasons many other immigrants do - education, better economic opportunities. But what surprised her was how this celebrated democracy she'd heard about her whole life seemed so out of touch with the lives of the people living in it.

BHOJWANI: Most people feel so disconnected from the institution of government. We feel so disconnected from people who are making decisions about what is going to happen in our lives and that our leaders are making no effort to make that connection.

RAZ: OK. So this is a common criticism of American politics today that this divide between government and citizens is getting wider. And Sayu argues that the group most left out of the conversation in democracies - immigrants.

BHOJWANI: Do they have access to the same platforms? Do they have a microphone that speaks as loudly? And I don't think that's the case.

RAZ: And Sayu says what's going to make our democracy stronger is listening to more immigrant voices. Here she is on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BHOJWANI: We actually have the power to change the outcome of elections, to introduce new issues into the policy debate and to change the face of the pale, male, stale leadership that we have in our country today. American leadership does not look like America's residents. There are over 500,000 local and state offices in America. Fewer than 2 percent of those offices are held by Asian-Americans or Latinos, the two largest immigrant groups in our country. And the most untapped resource in American democracy is the vantage point that immigrants bring. We have fought to be here. We have come for economic and educational opportunity. We have come for political and religious freedom.

RAZ: For Sayu Bhojwani, American democracy doesn't offer immigrants enough opportunity to participate. So a few years ago, she started an organization that trains immigrants to run for public office. They teach people how to fundraise, how to network, all in the hopes of getting more diverse candidates elected at local and state levels and eventually into Congress.

BHOJWANI: It's not always easy, but you can do it. And I want to tell you an example of one of the people we trained who just won a Democratic primary in Arizona. And I know this is a very specific American example, but she came to the United States and was undocumented, had no papers, had no legal status.

RAZ: Where'd she come from?

BHOJWANI: She came from Mexico. And then as a high school student, she got - benefitted from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act...

RAZ: That's the one that Reagan signed, yeah.

BHOJWANI: And now - and she took one of our trainings this year - last year, sorry, she took one of our trainings. And we convinced her that she could run for office, and she decided to run in Arizona. And so in January, she will be a state legislator. And she's one of several examples of people who arrived in the United States from Mexico and elsewhere without any papers, without any legal status...

RAZ: Quote, unquote, "illegal."

BHOJWANI: Exactly.

RAZ: Yeah.

BHOJWANI: And I think that this idea of a kind of representation that is reflective of the population is beyond just immigrants, right? It's why we want to see women, disabled folks, veterans, transgender people. When their voices are at the table, then their issues are being covered.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BHOJWANI: Immigrants votes, voices and vantage points are what we all need to work to include in American democracy. It's not just my work. It's also yours. And it's not going to be easy. We never know what putting a new factor into an equation will do.

And it's a little scary. You're scared that I'm going to take away your place at the table, and I'm scared that I'm never going to get a place at the table. And we're all scared that we're going to lose this country that we know and love. But I have fought to be in this country, and I continue to do so every day. So my optimism never wavers because I know that there are millions of immigrants just like me in front of me, behind me and all around me. It's our country, too.

RAZ: Do you think that we're at a moment in history where democracy and the democratic system as we know it in the West is being challenged?

BHOJWANI: So I think that there is a general sense of frustration about the way that our institutions work. I think people want something different. I think we're in a moment of transformation around what that something different could be. And I think it is representative of a fear and anxiety that a lot of us are feeling about how our world is changing. There is a struggle for personal, financial, psychological stability and security and that it gets framed in these arguments around, oh, now it's more diverse or now I have Latinos. But it used to be Italians or it was Germans or - you know, there was always somebody who was an outsider.

But really when we feel that, at a fundamental level what we're feeling is some instability. And what our leaders worldwide are failing to address is that instability. And because I'm an optimist, I think we're going to get there. But because I'm a realistic optimist, I think it might not be so pretty before we get there.

RAZ: Why do you - like, if you had - if democracy's on trial today, what's your defense of democracy? Why should this system continue to be sort of bandied about as the best way to govern humans?

BHOJWANI: When I think about democracy, I think about access. I think about the opportunity to exercise your choice in whatever way that presents itself, right? We often think about democracy in terms of politics and government, but, obviously, it's a much broader definition. And when I think about why it's better, I think of the reason that I left where I grew up to come to America because the choices that I have are greater. They may not be as easily accessible to me as America will portray it, but I do have choices. And I think that's worth fighting for.

RAZ: Sayu Bhojwani is the founder and president of the New American Leaders Project. They've trained over 400 people to run for political office. Check out her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, democracy on trial. More in a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.