Putting The ‘I’ In Immigrant: A stronger immigrant presence in public offices empowers younger generations

As everyone does, I had my heroes growing up. I was enamored by strong, resilient women, and I looked up to them with aspirations of one day reaching their heights of success. 

My mom was and will forever be one of the most prominent paradigms for the person I aspire to be. We came here from the Philippines together, but she has taught me so much about what it means to be an immigrant woman in the United States. Her selflessness knows no bounds, and her outlook is filled with unfailing hope. As a young woman only a few years older than I am now, she left behind career, family and all that she knew because she believed in the quality and promise of the American dream. 

From one daughter of immigrants to another, Vice President Kamala Harris’ words on Nov. 7 reverberated within my chest, speaking to our shared experience of being raised by the strongest women this country has the pleasure of knowing. 

In her first address as then vice president-elect, Harris spoke about her mom. She spoke of what it’s like to be raised in an immigrant household where dreams are a true and powerful commodity; for many, her words were fuel to chase dreams and motivation to leap through doors we once thought to be sealed shut. It matters that we have a greater immigrant presence in our public offices, and it matters especially to the youth of this nation watching individuals who look, think and sound like them fill positions of high esteem. 

On Nov. 7, it was never more true to me that a picture can speak a thousand words. Instagram was filled with parents capturing the moment their young children saw a Black and Asian American woman assume a role typically reserved for the wealthy, white man. The youth of the United States knew, just as we did, that history was being made right before our eyes and on the faces of the young girls of color, I recognized that flicker of hope and aspiration. 

It was a moment of reverent realization: It is possible to reach heights unknown, even from further back in the race. 

Months ago, I wrote with an anxious heart and trembling hands, not knowing what the future might hold. My fear was of continued xenophobia and the sharp, condemning rhetoric that foreign peoples in the United States were met with under the guise of nationalism these past four years. While the election of more diverse leaders does not even begin to bridge the gaps or bring about the change this nation needs, it is unmistakably a step toward more accurate representation. 

It matters that we have in office the most diverse, inclusive Congress ever to be seen in this country. According to data journalist Katharina Buchholz, Sen. Raphael Warnock’s latest victory in Georgia accounted for 137 members of Congress who self-identified as people of color, making the 117th U.S. Congress record-breaking for its slow climbing path to greater diversity. 

The election of more women of diverse backgrounds has also broken barriers in the past year. Elected leaders such as  Reps. Cori Bush, Marilyn Strickland, Deb Haaland and Teresa Leger Fernandez add to the ranks of women of color in Congress, and their seats are significant for bringing in the voices of more historically-marginalized groups. 

In the 116th U.S. Congress of the past year, the Pew Research Center reported that 13% of Congressional members were immigrants or were raised in an immigrant household. Among them, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey are immigrants themselves, escaping political turmoil in Somalia and Poland respectively.  

These figures are critical for allowing the next generation’s leaders to see themselves and feel represented by their elected officials. Beyond this, it is only right to have policy dictated by those that have walked in the shoes of their constituents.

Politics aside, Harris’ background brings promise for a new age of what immigrants can achieve in this world. For so long, it has been unfathomable to do what she did. As the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an immigrant from India, and Donald Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica, Harris brought up the label of the hyphenated American to be attributed to triumph despite the significant push back. 

As my mother’s daughter, I hope to make use of my mother’s great sacrifices and find my own path to achievement, because there is power to be found in where I come from and from the wellspring of strength that I was raised by. 

What I have learned in this landmark of history is that “a daughter of immigrants” is a label of rich history and potential, not a place of shame or disability. We are our mother’s daughters in that. 

Noelle Natividad is a sophomore writing about the immigrant experience in America. Her column, “Putting The “I” In Immigrant”, ran every other Friday.