Ethan Pham fled Vietnam with his family after his father was imprisoned there for 10 years for fighting on the side of U.S. troops against the Communists. He and his wife now run a law firm in Norcross.
Kevin Abel of Sandy Springs immigrated here from South Africa as a teenager with his family, leaving behind the ugliness of apartheid and seeking better opportunities in America. He and his wife started an Atlanta technology consulting company.
Pham and Abel are among at least 25 first-generation Americans running in this year’s midterm congressional elections for House and Senate seats, some driven by their fierce opposition to President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. The group includes Democrats, Republicans and independent candidates; men and women; and blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. They have come from across the globe: Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Nicaragua and Taiwan. Like Abel and Pham, some will face uphill battles against well-funded incumbents.
Just over 4 percent of those now in Congress — five senators and 18 representatives — were born outside the United States, including some to U.S. citizens who were serving abroad, according to New York City-based New American Leaders, which trains immigrants to run for public office.
“This year, we are seeing the most diverse group of first-generation candidates running for Congress,” said Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and president of New American Leaders, who was born in India and raised in Belize. “There is so much more at stake for our communities. We feel more than ever before that the downside of not running is greater than the challenges that we might face in running.”
Georgia’s down-ballot races feature many first- and second-generation Americans. For example, the six Republicans running for their party’s nomination in the Georgia House district covering the Suwanee and Duluth areas include Louis Tseng, an international foods distribution company CEO who immigrated from Taiwan, and Dr. Indran Krishnan, a gastroenterologist who was born in Sri Lanka. Aisha Yaqoob, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and the policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, is vying for the Democratic nomination for the same House seat being vacated by retiring Republican state Rep. Brooks Coleman.
Nearby in the House District covering Grayson, middle school teacher Patrick Batubenge, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is competing for the GOP nomination. He came to America through the diversity visa lottery program and is “lukewarm” about that Trump’s proposal to scrap it. Republican state Rep. Joyce Chandler, who holds the seat Batubenge is seeking, has announced she is retiring. Born in Jamaica, Donna McLeod, a chemical engineer and small business owner, is running as a Democrat for the seat.
Maria Palacios, a policy analyst for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, is a Democrat running for the seat now held by Republican state Rep. Matt Dubnik of Gainesville. Palacios became a naturalized U.S. citizen after her parents brought her here from Mexico as an infant without authorization. While immigration policy is important to her and the other first- and second- generation Americans running for Georgia’s statehouse, they recognize that is the federal government’s responsibility. So they are campaigning on a variety of other issues, including public education, the economy and constituent services.
Immigration, however, is front and center in some of Georgia’s congressional races. In the 6th Congressional District — which includes parts of north Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties — Abel is facing off against three other Democrats for their party’s nomination for Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel’s seat. Abel previously served as vice chairman of the board for New American Pathways, an Atlanta refugee resettlement agency. He is critical of Trump’s efforts to substantially curtail refugee resettlements in America. And he called the president’s proposed southwest border wall a “colossal waste of money and resources.”
“The Trump presidency’s rhetoric around immigration is pandering to a nativism and a hatefulness that is very unfortunate,” Abel said. “We are a nation of immigrants.”
In a nationally watched race last year, Handel won a special election for Tom Price’s former congressional seat over Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. She has built up a sizable campaign war chest, ending last year with more than $570,000 on hand. She declined to comment for this article. But her campaign website emphasizes border security.
“We need to build a wall along our southern border, demand immigration laws be enforced, improve the reliability of temporary visa programs, and create a viable guest worker program,” her website says. “While I understand and appreciate that we are a nation of immigrants, and believe we should be welcoming of those who wish to migrate to our great country, we are also a nation of laws, and our laws must be respected.”
In the neighboring 7th Congressional District, Pham is vying with four others for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, who finished last year with $405,620 in campaign cash on hand. The district includes much of immigrant-rich Gwinnett County and a southern chunk of conservative Forsyth County.
A Duluth resident, Pham is critical of Trump’s efforts to shrink legal immigration to the U.S. and phase out an Obama program that has temporarily shielded from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants nicknamed “Dreamers.” Over the Easter weekend, Trump tweeted about that program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — declaring: “NO MORE DACA DEAL.” Pham is proposing a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.
“I know firsthand the importance of having humane and compassionate immigration policies for welcoming people from around the world who are seeking a better life — who are willing to come here and work hard,” he said. “We need to continue to build upon that and not allow some of these extremist views to win the day when it comes to the immigration debate.”
Among Pham’s Democratic opponents is David Kim, the son of South Korean immigrants and the founder of a tutoring business with $100 million in annual revenue. He recently presided over an interfaith campaign luncheon at his father’s Korean barbecue restaurant in Duluth. As his diverse guests dined on kimchi and barbecued meats, Kim took aim at Trump’s fiery Twitter feed: “We are quite frankly a tweet away from a catastrophe every minute.”
After his luncheon wrapped up, Kim slid into a nearby booth and talked about some of the challenges of running in a rapidly diversifying district where immigrants may still be learning English while grappling with how to register to vote.
“The reality is you have so many hardworking legal immigrants here who are either working multiple jobs, or they are small business owners, and regardless of the community, they are open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at night,” he said. “How do you get those people to participate?”
Census and voter registration records illustrate his challenge. In Gwinnett, Asians make up just under 12 percent of the population. But they make up less than 1 percent of all the county’s 493,217 active voters. The situation is similar in Forsyth, where less than 1 percent of the county’s active voters are Asian. And while Gwinnett went for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election with 51 percent of the vote, Trump won Forsyth with a whopping 72 percent.
The two Republican candidates for the congressional district — Woodall and Marine Corps veteran Shane Hazel — illustrated Forsyth’s conservative views when they clashed over illegal immigration during a recent debate in Cumming. Woodall underscored border security.
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“You can’t move immigration reform forward without doing border security because you just trap another family in that same space tomorrow. But the president has offered a negotiated bargain. It wouldn’t have been the one I’d propose. But I support him and I believe we can get it done this year,” he said, pounding the desk for emphasis.
Hazel proposed cutting off welfare for unauthorized immigrants — they already are ineligible for most federal public benefits programs — and bringing U.S. troops home from conflicts abroad and putting them to work securing the southwest border with Mexico.
“Shut off the welfare magnet. Period. No illegals get welfare from the United States. That will start pushing them back right there,” he said, eliciting applause in the packed auditorium at the Forsyth County Administration Building. “We can bring our troops home and secure the southern border really quick.”