Wall Street Journal
By Melanie Grayce West
May 8, 2016
The rancorous debates around race and immigration have made this year’s presidential race a fraught one for many U.S. immigrants. Sayu Bhojwani’s mission is to change the conversation by getting some of them into politics.
Ms. Bhojwani, 48 years old, is the founder and president of the New York-based New American Leaders Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides training to first- and second-generation immigrants seeking elected offices.
Since it began in 2010, the organization has trained more than 400 people nationwide in the intricacies of political candidacy, from meeting constituents to delivering a stump speech to raising funds. The next training session, specifically for women, will happen in New York next month.
For Ms. Bhojwani, who was born in India, raised in Belize and came to the U.S. as a student, the goal is to elevate the often-acrimonious discussion of immigration.
“I don’t think that we’ve advanced in any way, in any meaningful way, around integration, and certainly around immigration reform,” said Ms. Bhojwani.
This election cycle, about two dozen New American Leaders alumni across the country are expected to pursue offices, in both the Democratic and Republican parties, ranging from local school-board seats to Congress. From 2011 to 2015, 33 alumni ran for office, and 10 won. Many more have used their training to land jobs in public service, according to Ms. Bhojwani.
This record, combined with a feeling among some in the immigrant community that the tone in politics has gotten worse, has given fresh momentum to candidates coming out of her organization’s training sessions.
“There is a maturation in the immigrant community,” Ms. Bhojwani said. “People we have, in the past, done get-out-the-vote work for, have not been as consistently responsive to our needs as we would like. That, I think, gives you more of an impetus to run yourself.”
Broadening the conversation about immigrants in New York is something that Ms. Bhojwani charted. Appointed in 2002 under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she was the city’s first immigrant-affairs commissioner.
She held that position for two years, instituting policies for language access and protections for domestic workers and launching the city’s Immigrant Week. In a post-9/11 climate, she said, her office was routinely tapped to advocate for individuals. Her father kept a stack of her business cards and handed them out freely.
“At the time, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more,” she said of her time as commissioner. “Because I was politically naive, I didn’t understand how much I had managed to achieve. But also it was hard for me to see the path forward to do more.”
‘I don’t think that we’ve advanced in any way, in any meaningful way, around integration, and certainly around immigration reform. ’
After leaving the Bloomberg administration, Ms. Bhojwani went back into philanthropy, still working for Mr. Bloomberg. For a time, she lived in London and started a family.
In 2008, as immigration became a pressing topic in the presidential race, Ms. Bhojwani couldn’t see how any change would be possible in President Barack Obama’s first year.
The problem, as she saw it, “is that we keep trying to build allies in the movement, but we are not electing our own.”
She considered running for New York’s state Assembly against Sheldon Silver. Or, she thought, she should start a program to teach immigrants to run for public office.
She started the New American Leaders Project with former colleagues and a few grants from foundations she knew. Running for office is something she is still considering, and she has a book project in the works.
John Mollenkopf, a political-science professor at the City University of New York, served as one of her dissertation advisers. She struggled with the idea of not pursuing her own campaign, he said, but by starting an organization, she has laid the groundwork for any future run.
“She identified quite correctly a hole in the structure of what people were doing in immigrant advocacy and mobilization,” he said. “It’s a major shortcoming of political parties that they have not conceptualized about how to reach out to emerging communities and develop leadership.”
When her organization conducts training sessions, Ms. Bhojwani attempts to identify people with the potential to create financial and political networks.
“Part of what I do is play the role of political therapist,” said Ms. Bhojwani. “The first day of training is about affirming the immigrant story as part of the broader American narrative.”
Jorge I. Montalvo, the son of Ecuadorean immigrants who was born and raised in the South Bronx, participated in a New American Leaders training in 2011. The 35-year-old now serves as the deputy secretary of state of New York for economic opportunity and director of the state’s Office for New Americans.
“Everyone has a different immigrant experience and American dream,” said Mr. Montalvo.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com