Oaths of Citizenship to Oath of Office: Immigrants Are Finding Their Way to the Statehouse-As Students of Democracy, as Voters and as Elected Members

Article excerpt

A hundred years ago, millions of immigrants came to the United States seeking economic opportunity and political freedom. Governments, businesses, social clubs, labor unions and owners of settlement houses stepped in to create English and civics classes. This campaign to help the immigrants assimilate to their new country reinforced America's national identity and became known as the "Americanization" movement.

Today, with immigration levels approaching those of the early 1900s, public leaders are again seeking ways to encourage America's newcomers to embrace American values. In its 1997 report, "Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy," the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reiterated its call for a renewed commitment to civic education and civic responsibility for immigrants in America. In 2005, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services launched a national campaign to encourage foreign-born residents to learn about their rights and responsibilities.

A number of immigrants have done that and more. They've run for and been elected to represent the people of their state. At least 79 state legislators have emigrated from more than 30 different countries.

PROVIDING A PUBLIC SERVICE

The concept of public service is not foreign to many of our newest citizens. Illinois Senator Adeline Geo-Karis, for example, has been a dedicated public servant for most of her life. Born in Greece in 1918, she served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, as justice of the peace, assistant state attorney, and mayor before running for the state legislature, where she has now served for 32 years. What motivated her to run for state office? The energy crisis of the 1970s and the need to support home-grown solutions such as ethanol and gasohol. Senator Geo-Karis strongly believes immigrants should naturalize and vote: "Once you're a citizen," she says, "you have a precious right to vote, and it must be used."

An immigrant from Lebanon, Representative Selim Noujaim of Connecticut came to the United States after falling in love with an American woman. Although he spoke no English when he arrived, he became a successful businessman and active member of his community. In 2002, he won election to the legislature with the goal of helping businesses and protecting seniors. Most recently, he's been helping a new Albanian community become acclimated and self-sufficient.

"The best way for immigrants to thrive is not to give them a handout but to help them help themselves. Immigrants should be an asset to the community, and they should not sit on the sidelines," he says.

A desire for better education for her children led Representative Swati Dandekar to overcome her reluctance to enter politics.

Born in India, she moved to Iowa in 1973 to join her husband, and finally decided to run for the school board.

"We live in a global economy, and need a strong curriculum," she says.

Dandekar was elected to the Iowa Statehouse in 2002 and says civic education has become even more important to her since. She helped unanimously pass legislation that created a commission to help Asians0 and Pacific Islanders, one of the state's fastest-growing populations.

The Commission on the Status of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage operates with public and private funds that pay for staff time and an office. Its nine members advise the governor and the General Assembly on issues confronting Iowa's Asian Americans. The commission serves as a conduit to state government for Asian and Pacific Islander organizations in Iowa and is supervising the development of trade materials to help Iowa exporters. Dandekar says the commission's activities will ultimately help minorities become involved in politics and be part of the process.

LEARNING ABOUT DEMOCRACY

Becoming involved in the political process is not easy for immigrants and refugees.

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Many face special challenges. …