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‘New Americans’ make gains in state legislatures but are still small minority, study shows

<i>KenWiedemann/E+/Getty Images</i><br/>The representation of first- and second-generation immigrants serving in US state legislatures has grown slightly from two years ago
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KenWiedemann/E+/Getty Images
The representation of first- and second-generation immigrants serving in US state legislatures has grown slightly from two years ago

By Shania Shelton

The representation of first- and second-generation immigrants serving in US state legislatures has grown slightly from two years ago, with women from Latina and Black backgrounds seeing higher levels of representation than their male counterparts. That’s according to a new report from New American Leaders, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping people with immigrant backgrounds run for office.

Whereas 71% of White state legislators are male, the gender breakdown skews in the opposite direction for Black and Latino immigrant legislators. About 58% of these Black immigrant state legislators and 54% of Latino immigrant state legislators were women in the 2022 legislative session, according to the report. That’s up from about 56% and 44%, respectively, in 2020.

“Through our new report, the State of Representation 2022, we discovered that while state legislatures are still overwhelmingly pale, stale, and male, the composition of these elected bodies is rapidly changing,” Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders and New American Leaders Action Fund, said in a statement. “Since 2020, Latina and Black women legislators have made significant gains in representation and now outnumber their male colleagues.”

Overall, however, first- and second-generation immigrants, whom the report calls “New Americans,” make up about 4% of state legislators — up from 3.5% in 2020. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders saw the most biggest gains, adding 27 newly elected legislators in the 2022 legislative session, while Latinos added 24, Black immigrants added 10, and Middle Eastern and North African legislators added three. Of these groups, “New American” legislators from Latino communities make up the largest share of total US state legislators, at about 1.7%.

“Yet even as we celebrate these gains, we know we still have a long way to go to achieve representational parity,” Dagher said in a news release. “If we want to create a truly inclusive and representative democracy, then we must invest in these communities to increase New American civic engagement and take a hard look at how our electoral and political systems still favor the white and wealthy.”

Among the states with the most representational parity — which the report measures by comparing the percentage of “New American” state legislators to the naturalized citizen voting age population — Rhode Island saw the most significant growth of first- and second-generation immigrants in state legislative office between 2020 and 2022, while Florida saw the most significant decrease. New Jersey scores the worst for parity, the report notes, while nine states have no first- or second-generation representation at all.

When it comes to party breakdown, more than 90% of these first- and second-generation state legislators identify as Democrats, according to the report. Republicans control more than 54% of state legislative seats across the country, the report notes, while arguing that that’s not sustainable in the face of demographics change. The report makes an appeal to the GOP to “take a hard look at their current platforms, messaging, and campaign strategies to become more inclusive,” specifically calling for the disavowal of “white supremacist rhetoric.”

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