It’s Who You Know:
Bringing Immigrants Into Politics
By Andrew Moesel
Democrats have often presented themselves as the party of the people, and several Queens political clubs are working to turn that catchphrase into a reality, pushing hard for new immigrants to become more involved in the democratic process.
The New Americans Democratic Club, based in Jackson Heights, is one such organization. Founded in 1990, the group hopes to widen the influence of immigrant populations by encouraging participation in local elections. That means spending long hours holding registration drives and educating foreign communities about the importance of fulfilling their civic duties.
“We are trying to organize different groups and educate them, and even inspiring individuals to run for office. We help them to understand the system and to understand American politics,” said Morshed Alam, founder and president of the club. “And it’s not only new immigrants. A lot of people don’t know the system here, people who have been living here for a long time.”
Like everyone else, Alam sees the ethnic landscape of Queens changing rapidly, but he believes the political representation of certain communities has not kept pace. Still, he has seen significant progress since emigrated from Bangladesh in 1984, when the idea of a new American holding office seemed absurd to many.
When he ran for State Senate against Frank Padavan in 1998, Alam said most people didn’t expect him to win more than 10 percent of the vote. He ended up receiving 41 percent. Although he still lost the race, the results showed the immigrant communities had arrived, and political clubs like Alam’s could no longer be cast to the political fringe.
A Growing Trend
Since then, four new Americans have been elected to public office at the city and state level: Assembly members Jose Peralta and Jimmy Meng and Council members Hiram Monserrate and John Liu. Several immigrants also hold district leader positions and work on political campaigns at all levels of government.
“They will hear us, and those who don’t, they don’t understand the importance of this vote,” Alam said, referring to the current politicians. “They have to understand the needs of reaching out to immigrant communities and new American communities.”
That lesson was not lost on another Queens organization, The New Visions Democratic Club, which early this year changed its constitution to offer membership to non-registered voters in an attempt to reach out to new immigrants. Now it allows anyone to join who “subscribes to the ideals and values of the Democratic Party and who subscribed to and desires to further the purposes of the Club.”
Daniel Dromm, the founder of New Visions, has said that even though new immigrants can’t vote, the values of the Democratic Party—strong beliefs in tolerance and personal freedoms—would attract more immigrants into the political process.
In the future, that participation could grow even more, thanks to a lobbying effort by Alam and his group to pass a law that would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Although some have been reluctant to chip away at the traditional privileges of citizenship, Alam said he is winning elected officials to his side and is confident in his ability to make a difference.
“It’s going to change, today or tomorrow, but it is changing,” he said. “I’m sure that time will show progress. Nobody can stop it, they can try to slow it, but they can’t stop it.”