The Democratic Congress that will make crucial decisions about immigration to the United States has very few immigrants among its ranks.
A mere 3% of members came to this country from other shores.
That’s lower than the Congress of a century ago. And of two centuries ago. And much lower than the nation as a whole, where 14% of the population is foreign-born.
That’s according to new research by the Pew Research Center in Washington, where associate digital producer Sara Atske examined congressional records, genealogical documents, news stories, obituaries, and candidate statements to determine lawmakers’ parentage and birthplaces.
The 117th Congress has 18 foreign-born members: 17 House representatives and one senator, Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii), who was born in Japan.
The Constitution dictates that an immigrant taking office in the House must be a U.S. citizen for at least seven years and be at least 25 years old, while the Senate requires nine years of citizenship and an age of 30 or older.
Atske’s research showed the House and Senate become more diverse when the criteria is enlarged to include both immigrants and the children of immigrants. Under that calculation, 14% of those in Congress are foreign-born or have at least one parent who was born in another country.
That 14% includes the 18 immigrant members, along with 58 other members, 42 in the House and 16 in the Senate, who are children of immigrants.
Why so few?
Immigrants face barriers in seeking and winning public office, says New American Leaders, a nonpartisan New York City group that works to equip migrants, refugees, and their allies with tools to be elected.
Some blocks are financial. New or recent Americans can lack the personal wealth that fuels some candidacies. The same with ties to larger fund-raising networks, and to traditional political operations. They can also face racism and sexism on the campaign trail, and even after being elected.
“When new Americans are not at the table, our experiences and issues are not reflected,” said Sara Le Brusq, interim president of New American Leaders. “Many new Americans in our network are community organizers who are drawn to leadership by a need to help their communities. Once they win, it’s a virtuous cycle — new Americans on the ballot can help mobilize new voters from the immigrant and refugee communities, helping to expand the electorate, and increase representation.”
The nation’s elected bodies have been slow to reflect changing demographics, and not just in Congress. Of the 7,383 seats in state legislatures, immigrants hold only 258, or 3.5%, according to a 2020 study by the organization. Nine states — Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, and South Dakota — have not one immigrant legislator, the study said.
The United States once had much higher percentages of immigrants in Congress. The first Congress of 1789-91 was 10% foreign-born. A hundred years later, the 50th Congress of 1887-89 was 8% immigrants.
Democrats far outnumber Republicans among both immigrants and children of immigrants. Fourteen of the 18 foreign-born members are Democrats, as are 44 of the 58 who are children of immigrants.
From Pennsylvania, Pew said, are Democratic House members Brendan Boyle, whose father came from Ireland, and Chrissy Houlahan, whose father immigrated from Poland.
In New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez’ parents came from Cuba. Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski immigrated from Poland; Rep. Albio Sires came from Cuba; and Rep. Andy Kim is the son of parents from South Korea.
Europe is the origin for a third of lawmakers who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Latin America and the Caribbean each account for roughly one in five immigrants and children of immigrants. Asia has a similar share.