Although she has lived in the U.S. since she was 2 months old, Maria Palacios was disqualified from running for a Georgia House seat because she became a citizen just last year.
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According to Georgia state constitution, candidates are required to be a “citizen of the state” for a minimum of two years before being elected to a government position. Palacios has partnered with ACLU of Georgia to sue the state’s secretary of state to reinstate her on the ballot.
On Wednesday, a judge ruled in favor of the secretary of state. As a result, Palacios remains disqualified from running. However, the ACLU of George says they intend to "vigorously appeal."
"[It is] important that no other U.S. citizen is denied the right to run for office because they are naturalized," Palacios said. "I believe in our democracy allowing equal opportunities for naturalized citizens."
Palacios is among a small wave of formerly undocumented immigrants candidates running for offices this year – many of them on the state and local level.
Organizations that promote the election of immigrants say it is important that the government better reflects the U.S. population.
Latinos and Asian-Americans comprise over 22 percent of the population in the U.S. but hold fewer than 2 percent of more than 500,000 elected positions, from county commissioners to school board members, mayors and Congress, according to a report by New American Leaders, a group that encourages immigrants to run for office.
"That means just one in 50 elected officials nationwide is Latino or Asian American," the report said.
Sayu Bhojwani, founder of New American Leaders, said newcomers to the U.S. may bring notable dedication to an elected office because they, or their families, made a conscious choice to become Americans.
"Most of us have fought to come here or to be here, and we are very committed to democracy," Bhojwani said.
New American Leaders has helped 38 immigrants win election to state and local office. Among the immigrants who hope to win election this year are some who were formerly undocumented. Here are a few:
A mother of three, Palacios said that when she found out she became ineligible to run for the Georgia state House, she became concerned about the future of other previously undocumented people who aspire to engage civically.
"When you’re growing up, you’re always looking to identify yourself," Palacios said. "Younger generations shouldn’t feel limited because they don’t identify with the people [...] in our government. If we truly want to be the best and the brightest we need to truly embrace all ethnicities and have them feel comfortable."
Catalina Cruz said she is running for the New York state Assembly to set policies that will help people like her mother, who had to scrounge to make ends meet as Cruz was growing up, including by selling tamales and collecting cans.
"It gives me the opportunity to fight in a way I haven't been able to do or frankly had the courage to do until now," Cruz said.
If she wins the Queens, New York, seat, Cruz, who became a citizen in 2009, said she is not worried about any criticism because of her previous status as undocumented.
"If you grew up undocumented you already had enough hardships,” Cruz said. “What is an anti-immigrant going to do to you that this system and this society hasn’t already done to you as an undocumented person?"
Farrah Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, quotes an adage to explain the need for minorities to run for office: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.”
In 1974, Khan came to the U.S. with her mother on a sponsorship from her father until she was naturalized years later. Now, she's running for city council in Irvine, California.
Khan, the executive director of a local non-profit, the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council in southern California, said immigrants face a number of challenges in winning election including work to gain “name recognition, support from elected officials or even party folks."
"It is much harder for immigrants, people of color to attain these positions because there isn't a natural pipeline of people coming into politics and there are many obstacles to overcome," Khan said. "It's mostly been these amazing unpredicted wins, which is a problem in itself. There needs to be a natural process by which immigrants, people of color are pushed up to feed into the leadership roles."
If Khan wins the seat, she will become the first Asian-Pacific Islander woman to serve on the Irvine City Council.