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The Real American Dream: 4 Important Stories of Immigrants Who Ran for Office in Texas

From Houston to Sugar Land, immigrants are taking leading democratic roles in making a difference for their increasingly diverse communities.

Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration by Ali Noorani (Prometheus Books, April 2017):

The New Texas

I remember the first time my mom took me with her to vote. We drove in the family station wagon to the polling place at Notre Dame High School. My parents immigrated to the States from Pakistan in 1971. When they arrived, they stayed in Livermore, California, for a few months at my uncle’s home. Soon they moved to Santa Cruz (my birthplace), where my dad found a job that helped him acquire the hours necessary for his physical-therapy license. In 1975, we moved to Salinas, California, and my parents opened a private practice.

This was my first trip to Notre Dame, the all-girls high school in town, so I was pretty excited. Sadly, it was also my last time in the building.

We waited briefly to check in with the volunteers and were assigned a booth in the school cafeteria. The blue velvet curtains were heavy and thick with that rarely used smell as we entered the booth. I stood next to my mom as she inserted her ballot, clicked the mechanical switches, and pulled the lever with a satisfying sound. While we use pens or computer screens these days, every time I vote, those lines, smells, and noises come to mind.

We were a bit of an anomaly in Salinas. The relatively small city did not have a big South Asian population. It was mostly my sisters, my parents, and me. Most of my friends were Mexican or white. I was none of the above, but I got along with all of the above. In retrospect, this dynamic played a pivotal role in my ability to work and relate across ethnic and political lines.

We grew up in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood with the usual dramas of life, nothing too serious. My parents were politically active in that we knew there was a world bigger than Salinas. Maybe this was easier as an immigrant family, since our conversations, relationships, and travels would take us out of the country. While my parents were certainly politically aware, we were not instilled with a spirit of activism. The public-policy debates of the time rarely, if ever, made it to our dinner table.

Voting, I suppose, was my parents’ activism. They came to America to become Americans. Participating in the American political system as voters was one way to ensure that my sisters and I had a better life. I admit that I have sometimes taken for granted the right to vote. I didn’t always appreciate the impact of the political process on my life, nor did I always work to impact that process through my vote. In doing so, I let my parents down as much as anyone else. Now I realize that, as a US citizen, as a child of immigrants, if I don’t vote, I don’t matter. Which, I think, is why my mom took me with her to vote. She believed that she mattered. It is the same reason new American citizens are voting in increasingly large numbers.

Hard to Pigeonhole Houston

The story of metropolitan Houston is a story about the United States. As we will see, underneath the social and economic differences within the Houston metropolitan region lie political similarities. As the identity and composition of each city changed, immigrant communities integrated themselves into the political structures, leading to new alliances that influenced the region. In some instances, the alliances were strong enough to bridge cultural differences. In other cases, there was more work to do. As we talked about these changes to the political structure, and the new immigrant and minority leadership that defined them, Mustafa Tameez, a local political strategist, told me, “What they have in common, though, is the sense that it is our time, and that they are more reflective of the cities that they [seek to lead].” Houston’s civic leadership was changing to represent the diversity of the region itself.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Mustafa moved to Queens, New York, when he was eight years old. He left for Houston in 1994 and built a successful career in communications and marketing. Graying at the temples, Tameez is soft-spoken, walks with a slight limp, and has a sense of humor I can appreciate.

As we sat in a hipster Houston gastropub, he eyed my kombucha, the latest fad in fermented, effervescent drinks, and asked the waitress, “What is this stuff he has, kombucha?”

“It is a flavored drink with active enzymes. It’s really good,” I remember her saying as I nodded my agreement.

“I’ll try one.” After the waitress walked away, Mustafa leaned over, with a bit of a smirk, “You know, in Karachi, we just call that water. And the enzymes clean you right out.”

In 2001, a friend from the Houston Muslim community asked Tameez to contribute to Mayor Lee Brown’s reelection bid. Mustafa was in the marketing business and had never been politically involved. After a gentle “do it for the community” twist of the arm from his friend, Tameez made his donation and found himself sitting next to Mayor Brown at a fundraiser. He innocently asked the mayor how he planned to use the funds to engage Asian voters—the donation was “for the community,” after all. The mayor didn’t have an answer, but his campaign manager soon followed up. To make a long story short, his question led to a campaign job in which he designed and executed Brown’s Asian-voter outreach program.

That 2001 election deep in the heart of Texas (read: anywhere in Texas), was a bellwether moment. The race pitted Brown (the city’s first African American mayor, who was in his third and final term and was strongly supported by the national Democratic Party) against Orlando Sanchez (a Cuban-American Republican supported by then president George W. Bush and his vast network). Since neither candidate earned a simple majority of voters in the general election, they were slated to meet each other in a December runoff.

To the uninitiated, Houston was the last place one would expect a high-stakes race for mayor between two people of color. In a runoff election, with no national or statewide race to attract attention, the campaigns knew victory required an all-out effort. In the final four weeks of the runoff campaign, spending was estimated to be as high as $4 million, as both parties furiously deployed money and spokespeople to Houston. Richard Bond, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the New York Times, “We’d love to have this guy.”

As a result of the massive investment, voter turnout in the 2001 runoff was up about 12 percent over the 288,000 votes cast in the November 6 election. Richard Murray, University of Houston political science professor, estimated that Brown “won with support from the black community and about one of every four Anglo voters.” As a result of Tameez’s strategy, 80 percent of Asians voted for Brown; 72 percent of Hispanics did as well. All told, the coalition of black and brown voters earned Brown a 52 to 48 victory.

Consider the alternative: A Sanchez victory based on a coalition of conservative white and Hispanic voters. That alignment that would have provided a Hispanic Republican mayor of the state’s largest city a powerful platform to shape the trajectory of Republican politics across the state and, perhaps, the country. Sanchez could have led Republicans toward a new type of politics from one of the most conservative states in the union.

Instead, Houston remained in the hands of Democrats, who, over the years, methodically built a multiethnic coalition that coalesced around a new American identity. And just four years after the Sanchez loss, congressional Republicans passed legislation, HR 4437, criminalizing the undocumented—and anyone who helped them. This led to a decade of coalition work by Democrats and a steady stream of Republican-led legislative attacks on immigrants and immigration at the local, state, and federal levels. At the risk of oversimplification, their stances could be described as follows: Democrats sought to welcome and integrate immigrants, while Republicans looked to marginalize and ostracize them.

As we sipped our hipster kombucha and nibbled on our hipster quinoa, Tameez reflected on Houston as “a city with lots of contradictions. We create more millionaires than any other city. We also have the most amount of low-wage jobs that have been created here than anywhere else in the United States.” The changes to the city have been significant. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of Latinos in Houston grew fifteen points to 35 percent, while the Anglo (the term of choice for white Texans) population dropped eighteen points to just under 40 percent. The African American population remained fairly stable at around 17 percent. Over that same period of time, Houston mayors toggled between white and African American leaders, including two women and one of the nation’s first openly gay mayors.

The city’s leadership understands that its collective economic and political success requires cultural crossover, especially since, as Tameez told me, the future purchasing power of the region is controlled by the 51 percent of people under the age of twenty, who are Hispanic. “Therefore, the power structure will have to yield and change.”

A New Sheriff in Town

Born and raised in Houston to Mexican immigrant parents, Adrian Garcia’s life and career mirrored the city’s demographic, economic, and political changes. Over a steaming plate of enchiladas, Adrian told me that his parents came to the country because “one of my brothers was gravely ill.” And because the elder Garcia had been a guest worker, “he was able to petition for another work visa.” Now, the younger Garcia lives less than a mile away from where his father worked.

Adrian followed in his brother’s footsteps to join the Houston police force in 1980, and he served for twenty-three years. In 2003, he left the department to run for Houston City Council to represent District H, which was over 70 percent Hispanic. Foreshadowing a plucky political career, Garcia defeated Diana Dávila Martínez by a mere 841 votes in a December runoff.

His own political influence grew with the influence of the predominantly Hispanic district he represented. He capitalized on his law-enforcement expertise to chair the council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, and in 2007, Mayor Bill White appointed him mayor pro tempore.

As his stock rose, so did the possibility of significant voter interest. In 2008, Adrian decided to run for sheriff of Harris County. Houston city proper covers 579 square miles with a 2015 population of just over 2 million people; Harris County is the most populous county in the state and third largest in the nation. Its population of 4.337 million people located in 1,777 square miles make Harris County larger than half the states in the union.

This meant that Garcia’s population of eligible voters grew dramatically from 131,825 (66 percent of whom were Hispanic) in District H to 1.9 million across Harris County (16 percent of whom were Hispanic). Winning an expanded election required an expanded strategy. The path to victory was moderate voters who needed a reason to put rule-of-law priorities over concerns they might have with a liberal Hispanic sheriff. As Garcia put it, “I’ll go work [with] moderate Republicans and try to pull them over.”

Garcia went on to win the sheriff’s seat by thirteen points. Aided to a certain degree by misstep-prone opponents, his campaign showed “rule of law” values could recruit moderate Anglo voters he did not immediately identify with—particularly since the 2008 “Obama effect” only brought a 2 percent increase from the previous presidential cycle. Garcia parlayed his law-and-order, smart-management message to build a diverse coalition of support. Little did the new sheriff know that his combination personal story, law-enforcement expertise, and elected office experience would put him in the middle of America’s identity crisis.

Under President George W. Bush’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security created an immigration-enforcement program that permitted state and local law enforcement to enforce civil immigration law under the supervision of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Local law enforcement decided whether or not to join and implement the program. Further adding to local discretion, the program’s authority could be implemented across the entirety of law-enforcement functions, or it could be limited to specific areas, such as correctional facilities.

Immigration advocates believed local law enforcement took advantage of this “287(g) program” to profile people of color and arrest immigrants on minor charges to detain and deport those who proved to be undocumented. Supporters felt local law enforcement should be allowed to assist in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Wherever the program was implemented, it was a controversial flash point. Immigrant communities could not help but feel that they were under suspicion by anyone who had a badge. As a result, trust between immigrants and law enforcement diminished. But in 2008, Adrian Garcia, who cut his teeth representing one of the largest Hispanic districts in the city, was the one with the badge.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department agreed to participate in a version of the program—limited to correctional facilities only—in August 2008, months before Garcia took office. By the end of his first year in office, Garcia signed onto the Obama version of the 287(g) program, Secure Communities. The program was designed to prioritize the removal of criminal aliens, legal and undocumented, who had committed high- priority deportable offenses. As summarized by the Migration Policy Institute, Secure Communities prioritized removals across three levels.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement considered Level 1 offenders the highest priority, those convicted of major drug offenses or violent crimes. Level 2 offenders included those convicted of minor drug offenses and crimes such as burglary, larceny, or money laundering. And Level 3 offenders had been convicted of other crimes.

Due in large part to programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, the Washington Times reported that, “According to a Syracuse University study based on federal records, the Houston-based [US District Court for the Southern District of Texas] handled nearly 23,000 immigration prosecutions in the first nine months of fiscal 2009—by far the most of any district court in the country and a projected increase of 22 percent over last year. The story of a newly elected Hispanic sheriff from a majority Hispanic district detaining and deporting immigrants at a record pace cut both ways. Moderate, white, law-and-order voters respected it. Hispanic voters, Garcia’s base, felt disrespected.

All of this complicated life for the new sheriff. He was electorally dependent on an ethnically and politically diverse coalition, but his personal values were rooted in the Hispanic community. As a modern-day crossover candidate, Sheriff Garcia embodied the new Houston Mustafa had referred to. Squaring his role as the chief law-enforcement officer of Harris County with his past efforts as a city councilor and community advocate would be a challenge.

So Garcia used his influence as a Latino Democrat elected to serve as the sheriff of the fourth largest department in the nation to press the Obama administration. He realized he had “made the mistake of believing the administration, that the focus of the programs would be [Level] 1 violators.” Therefore, Garcia renegotiated his memorandum of understanding with federal immigration enforcement to force “transparency” and “reporting.”

Explaining this to his Hispanic constituents was easier than expected. “When I would go to the Hispanic community, I would ask them for their vote and I would tell them, ‘Look, we’re going to continue to keep programs in place that are intended to keep everybody [safe]. Remember that some of the people that harmed you tend to look like me.’” When the issue came up with white audiences, Adrian would say, “Look, I’m in the information business. In order for me to do my job well, I need people to come forward and share information. Right now, if I do any more than what I’m doing, I’m likely to shut down a pipeline of information.” At a time when he could have leaned in one direction or another, swayed by identity, Garcia relied on his primary purpose to serve and protect with the whole of his broad political coalition and community.

This decision to work across the spectrum and create a political center paid off when he ran for reelection in 2014. Adrian was from, and represented, Houston’s Hispanic community, but he was able to reach across the ethnic and political aisle to create a consensus. “When I was up for reelection, the fact that I had worked down the middle made the success of that reelection easier as a crossover. I saved money, [and] people liked the policy I was doing, the work I was doing,” Garcia continued. “So it was easier to maintain that crossover status.”

The strength of his diversity as a Latino law-enforcement official working across community lines shined through. Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s leadership allowed the Harris County Sheriff’s Department to be an institution that brought the community together. Similar to a business that marketed to different consumers, a school that served a diverse student body, and a church that brought different ethnic ministries together, this was a law-enforcement agency that was helping Houston move forward as a united city. In this instance, the department captured the promise of Houston.

Less than a year after his reelection as sheriff, Garcia set his eyes on the mayor’s office. Fourteen years after Orlando Sanchez’s defeat, in May 2015, the Houston Chronicle highlighted the importance of Garcia’s campaign, “While Garcia will now have to turn in his gun and badge and resign as sheriff, he could end the year elected as the first Hispanic mayor of the most diverse city in America.”

But broader culture and politics intervened. In May 2014, with Mayor Annise Parker’s support, the Houston city council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in an 11 to 6 vote. Social conservatives organized a ballot initiative to put the ordinance in front of the voters. According to Ballotpedia:

The ordinance, which was on the ballot as Proposition 1, would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity—criteria not covered by federal anti-discrimination laws—especially “in city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, public accommodations, and private employment.”

The proposition sparked an intense, often ugly, campaign that pit social conservatives against gay-rights advocates and progressives. The local issue quickly became a national hot button, with conservative faith leaders among the most outspoken opponents.

In spite of the ruckus, Garcia’s campaign seemed to be going well. Helped by name recognition and the fundraising networks of his recent sheriff’s campaign, an October 7, 2015, poll showed Garcia in a tie for first with fellow Democrat Sylvester Turner. The poll also included “questions about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) and showed a majority of Houstonians in favor of it.”

As the Houston Chronicle wrote less than a month later: “the man many thought could have been Houston’s first Hispanic mayor is out of the running and out of a job.” Voters had overturned the ordinance 61 percent to 39 percent and sent Republican Bill King to the December mayoral runoff with Democratic State Representative Sylvester Turner—Garcia was a distant eight points back. Conservative anger regarding the ordinance spiked turnout, overwhelmed a crowded field, and split a Democratic vote between several contenders. In other words, culture drove the day.

In the final runoff, Turner, an African American with deep roots in Houston, eked out a 4,100 vote victory over King. According to Governing Magazine, “King took 71 percent of the vote in the city’s majority-white voting precincts, where residents also turned out in the highest numbers. Turner won a whopping 93 percent of the vote in majority-black precincts, however, erasing King’s turnout advantage.” Republicans narrowly lost once again.

Let’s return to the 2001 Brown versus Sanchez runoff. If Sanchez had won, the ranks of Hispanic conservatives surely would have grown. The older generation, at least, could have opposed Proposition 1. Instead, without a moderate Republican leader in 2015, the Texas Republican Party was dominated by anti-immigrant legislators. In fact, there was a drop-off of about 48,000 votes in the runoff election. It is not difficult to argue that culturally conservative Latino voters, who may very well have opposed HERO, were turned off by anti-immigrant Republicans; they either voted Democratic or stayed home (contributing to the drop-off in turnout). Once again, were Hispanic voters the margin that kept the nation’s fourth largest city in Democratic hands?

The ink had barely dried on the 2015 mayoral election before Garcia announced his third campaign in three years with a run for Congress. This time he challenged two-decade incumbent Gene Green to represent the 29th congressional district—the fifth most Hispanic district in the country. Garcia sought to serve a district he described as “the third worst ranking on educational attainment. It ranks lower than state average and national average on homeownership rates. It ranks worse than the state average and national average on children living in poverty.”

Early on in the campaign, as the dynamics of the race were taking shape, Emily Deruy of the Atlantic asked the question, “Is it more important for a majority-Latino district to be represented by a Latino, or is a long-serving Caucasian ally just as fit for the post?”

As I watched the race from the cushy confines of Washington, DC, it felt like Garcia was thrashing from campaign to campaign, looking for a job. But it was different. He was testing the ability of Hispanic voters to exert their political identity and influence. Although Garcia ultimately fell short in his campaign against Green, his was yet another challenge to the region’s power structure.

As we reflected on his political career over that lunch in Houston, Adrian described the string of events that led him to join the police force. These included the “Chicano Brown Power” movement, the high-profile beating and eventual death of a Hispanic Vietnam veteran in Houston, and subsequent outreach by the police department to diversify its ranks. Early in his law-enforcement career, as he felt Hispanics were telling him, “I guess you are not one of us if you joined them,” he committed himself to a path where he could increase his influence in order to benefit his community.

While he was out of politics for the moment, this path to influence was still clear to him. It was the path of understanding, he told me, “the quest of identity, the quest of integration, the quest of influence, is still alive and well. It’s still occurring in different ways.”

The Importance of the Crossover

Just east of Houston lies Sugar Land, Texas. With its manicured lawns, gleaming business parks, and clogged traffic, Sugar Land has all the signs of suburban American economic growth. The Town Square, an open-air business district built in the late 1990s, is a multi-block shopping complex with restaurants, high-end boutiques, and a Marriott hotel.

From 1910 until 1959, Sugar Land was a company town that revolved around the Imperial Sugar Company and the housing, healthcare, and businesses it provided for the workers and their families. Beginning in the 1980s, a number of large corporations opened offices in Sugar Land. Its corporate footprint grew to include the headquarters of Minute Maid, Schlumberger, Tramontina USA, Fluor Corporation, Bechtel Equipment Operations, Noble Drilling, Money Management International, and Aetna.

It was midafternoon on a Thursday in downtown Sugar Land, but the Baker Street Pub and Grill buzzed like a Saturday. Through the open windows I saw a group wearing matching blue T-shirts as they laughed and drank, clearly in some kind of celebration. Further down the street, I spotted more people in the blue Clements High School shirts, this time a gaggle of black, white, and Asian parents drinking beer and munching on appetizers. Downtown Sugar Land, it seemed, was the United Nations of beaming parents.

In the twenty-plus years since 1990, the Sugar Land population had nearly doubled to top 87,000 in 2016, and the suburb became the third largest in the metropolitan area (behind Houston and Pasadena). At the same time, Sugar Land became the largest city in Fort Bend County, which Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg called “the most ethnically diverse county in America.” Just as Sugar Land resembles an America we will see in the next fifty years, its political dynamics foreshadow those we will see elsewhere.

I met KP George for breakfast at the Avalon Diner on the eastern edge of Houston. As we sat in a booth, sinking into overstuffed vinyl-upholstered benches, George told me his story: he grew up poor in a South Indian village, immigrated to the United States in 1993, and became a citizen in 1999. Since then, he has mounted campaigns for Fort Bend County treasurer, the 22nd congressional district, and a winning effort to serve on the Fort Bend County Independent School District School Board. As an independent certified financial planner, father, and elected official, George was a full-fledged owner of the American dream.

In his rapid-fire South Indian accent, George excitedly described the school district’s population, “Ninety-five languages are spoken in Fort Bend. The population is African American about 27 percent, Hispanics around 25.5, and Asians are almost touching 24; ... you don’t see in many places that kind of demographics. And the Caucasian population is about 19 percent, so they are the minority.” Fort Bend County is not on a path to the old Texas. It is a county on the cutting edge of economic and social change. And its school system, from the leadership to the students, was one of the places where communities were learning to coexist.

As the largest city in Fort Bend County, Sugar Land had undergone dramatic changes itself. In the first ten years of the new century, the white population shrunk 5 percent, the Asian population grew 78 percent, and the Latino community grew enough to make up 10 percent of the total population. According to the US Census Bureau, the Asian community grew from just under 8 percent of the population in 2000 to over 35 percent in 2010. Political diversity has not accompanied ethnic diversity; the city remains a Republican stronghold. For elected leadership to represent the diversity of the city, the trick was to find a candidate representative of the immigrant community who was able to cross over and earn the support of conservative white Republicans.

Harish Jajoo was that person. He immigrated to Sugar Land in the 1980s from India, was fiscally conservative, and worked as an engineer for the city of Houston. He and his wife (a doctor) had raised their two sons in Sugar Land when it was a small, scrappy Houston suburb.

Jajoo and I sat in the lobby of the Marriott hotel just across the street from City Hall. He told me he and his wife came to Sugar Land for the “good schools, good neighborhoods ... [and] for the medical center.” Well before KP George’s time, what drew Jajoo to public service was the local school system. So in 1994, Jajoo ran for school board in Fort Bend ISD. He said, “I was the first Asian American, Indo American, whatever American to run for any public office. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing.”

While Jajoo was defeated by his eighteen-year incumbent opponent, he felt good about the campaign. “At the end of the day, I still gained 1,800 votes. He had only 3,500, so it wasn’t totally lost. So I made 1,800 friends, and I was really excited about that.”

What Jajoo remembers from that first campaign is the road he paved. I couldn’t help but agree with him when Jajoo echoed my earlier conversation with George: “That was a watershed moment, I think, in the South Asian community; ... nobody ever did it. I was the first one. Unfortunately, it was not successful, but it paved the path for a lot of other people to follow, too.”

Sixteen years and a Sugar Land Zoning Board appointment later, Jajoo retired from his job as an engineer with Houston to try another run for office. This time, he was better prepared. In 2011, Jajoo competed against another South Asian, Farha Ahmed, to secure the District 4 City Council seat.

As Jajoo approached his term limit in 2016, he geared up to run for mayor of Sugar Land. As Jajoo put it, “As the mayor, I can set the path to what you want to see the city as. It’s my city. It’s your city. It’s everybody’s city. Nobody owns the city. The city is the people.” The challenge was to translate this vision of representing a diverse city to a campaign strategy that reached across race and ethnicity.

Jajoo received enough votes in the general election to run against Joe Zimmerman, a white man with the endorsement of the outgoing mayor, James Thompson. He had also served as Sugar Land’s Position Two at-large city councilor since 2012. In June 2016, Jajoo lost the campaign, but he was still paving new paths to try to bring diverse representation to his city.

I saw the same energy and entrepreneurship in Vy Nguyen. Personally recruited in 2012 by the Fort Bend County Democratic Party chair, Nguyen ran for Texas State Representative in District 26 at the age of thirty-four. As a small-business owner, Vietnamese American, and single mother, her story was powerful. “My family came here at the fall of Saigon when the Communist government took over the country,” Nguyen told the Sugar Land Sun. “My grandmother was killed trying to come to this country. I was named after her. When I think of immigration I’m grateful because I wouldn’t be alive if this country wasn’t generous enough to let us in.”

District 26 covers the overwhelming majority of Sugar Land and stretches north a little into Mission Bend and west into Pecan Grove and Richmond. It is an extraordinarily diverse district. Forty percent of its residents speak a language other than English at home. As with Jajoo, if Nguyen could cross over to reach other ethnic communities, she could win.

Over the course of her campaign, Nguyen saw things she didn’t expect from candidates who did not share her immigrant heritage, particularly when it came to reaching out to the diversity of the county. “I saw that the white politicians who are officeholders in Fort Bend County were also at the mosques. When I was there, they were there, too, because they realized how important it was to be more embracing and to open their eyes to the reality and the beautiful diversity that we have out in Fort Bend County, instead of trying to ignore it and suppress it or degrade it.”

Issues of voter education and engagement surfaced: “You drove through Sugar Land, [and] there was an early-voting poll at every church. It was ubiquitous. It was everywhere.” But ten miles to the north in Mission Bend, a more middle-class town, “they only had one early-voting poll. ... It was in a small, little, tiny park that was buried in the back of the back streets of Mission Bend.”

For Nguyen, she broke ground and inspired others: “I think seeing an Asian candidate was refreshing for [Vietnamese women]. I think it was almost like a lot of the Vietnamese women ... had never seen that before.” Most important, Nguyen was invited into the political infrastructure, “To this day, people ask me to help with political events, [with] this and that, and I always feel very humbled by that. I think to myself, ‘Well, I didn’t win, but I’m glad to know that people thought that we ran a good campaign.’”

George, Garcia, Jajoo, and Nguyen: these are the stories of four immigrants to America who work to make their communities better places through civic participation. All four were economically successful to one degree or another, but they integrated into society and saw themselves as part of a bigger conversation about the future of America. They identified as American, they integrated into society, and they sought to influence the system as elected officials. They won some races and lost others. But this was the American dream in action.

This has been an excerpt from the new book There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration by Ali Noorani (Prometheus Books, April 2017).

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization promoting the value of immigrants and immigration. Noorani was previously executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. In 2015, Noorani was named a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration.

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