Immigrants leading the way in U.S. Congress

Last updated on August 14th, 2023 at 09:49 pm

The United States was founded as a nation of immigrants. The 114th U.S. Congress may currently have the fewest number of immigrant members in decades, but all that is set to change. The U.S. is starting to see more and more immigrants, first, and second generation individuals running for various official positions within the government.

Immigrants and family members of immigrants have a firsthand understanding of the complexity of the United States government and legislation. The knowledge, background, and life experience that they bring to the office is an invaluable asset to Congress which will help them make decisions to better serve these communities throughout the U.S.


Learn about five members of Congress who are paving the way for better representation of the American population in the U.S. government.

Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)

Immigrants in the U.S. Congress: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
AFGE / Flickr

Tammy Duckworth has broken barriers and established a number of “firsts” all throughout her career. After serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, Duckworth became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress in Illinois (and only the second Asian American woman to be elected to Congress ever, after Mazie Hirono).

Duckworth was born in Thailand to a U.S. Army veteran father and a Thai mother of Chinese descent. During her graduate studies, she followed her father’s footsteps to enlist in the U.S. Army and served during the Iraq War. She suffered serious injuries to both her legs after the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by Iraqi rocket-propelled grenades. Her right leg was amputated at the hip and her right was amputated below the knee.

In 2012, Duckworth became the first disabled woman and the first female double amputee to be elected to Congress, the first member of Congress born in Thailand, and the first woman ever to give birth while in office, breaking many barriers to be where she is today.

Adriano Espaillat (D-NY)

Since November 2016, Adriano Espaillat has represented the 13th congressional district of New York. He previously served as a member of the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly. Espaillat represents the first formerly undocumented person to ever serve in Congress, as well as the first Dominican-American member of Congress.

Espaillat was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City with his family at the age of nine. After serving in the New York State Assembly from 1997 to 2010, Espaillat pursued a bid for Congress and won a seat in the New York State Senate.

Then, in 2015, his chief Democratic opponent for New York’s 13th congressional district, Chuck Rangel, announced he would not be seeking re-election. After successful winning the Democratic primary in November 2016, Espaillat was elected to the United States House of Representatives for the 13th congressional district of New York.

Mazie Hirono (D-HI)

Mazie Hirono is the first elected female Senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, the first U.S. Senator born in Japan, and the first Buddhist Senator (although she considers herself a non-practicing Buddhist).

She was born in Fukushima, Japan to an American mother, and moved with her mother and family to Honolulu, Hawaii. She became a naturalized citizen in 1959 when Hawaii officially joined the United States and left Hawaii only to attend Georgetown University. She graduated in 1978 and returned to Honolulu where she ran a successful law practice.

Hirono won the Democratic nomination after Senator Daniel Akaka retired in 2013, and won the election with 63 percent of the vote. She has been serving in the government of the state of Hawaii since 1985, from the Hawaii House of Representatives to Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii.

Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

Immigrants in the U.S. Congress: Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)
Voices for National Service / Flickr

Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first Asian-American to represent Washington State in Congress.

She was born in Chennai, India, and spent most of her childhood in Malaysia and Singapore. At the age of 16, she immigrated to the United States to attend college, receiving her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University. She then obtained her Masters in Business Administration from Northwestern University.

After September 11, 2001, Jayapal founded the Hate Free Zone, to help register new American citizens to vote and encourage advocacy and lobbying for immigrant rights. She was elected into office during the November 2016 election with 56 percent of the vote.

As proof of Jayapal’s dedication to immigration reform, she has been arrested multiple times for protesting immigration policy, most recently in June 2018 in protest of the newly enacted “zero tolerance” policy from the current administration.

Ilhan Omar (D-MN)

Immigrants in the U.S. Congress: Ilhan Omar (D-MN)
Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American legislator to be elected in the United States as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and immigrated to the U.S. with her father and grandfather at the age of 13. Her father and grandfather had always emphasized the importance of democracy. Even as a teenager, Omar accompanied her grandfather to local caucus meetings as his English interpreter.

In August 2016, she won the primary nomination, beating out incumbent Phyllis Kahn. Omar won the general election in November 2016 and became the first Somali-American legislator ever to serve in the United States Congress.

After winning the August 2018 primary against incumbent Keith Ellison, she has her eyes on a seat in Congress as a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party member of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the 5th congressional district.

Support immigrants running for Congress

The upcoming election in November will usher in a new era for Congress, and there will be a whole new generation of candidates running for office. With each new year, Congress has the chance to evolve, and more immigrants, and first and second generation individuals, have a chance to take part in democracy.

As election season grows near, make sure you’re registered and don’t forget to vote! For more information on voting in the U.S., visit our post on how to vote in the U.S. as an immigrant or expatriate.

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