‘New Americans’ make up just 5% of Michigan Legislature

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri and House Democrats announce their unemployment benefits package, Sept. 3, 2019 | Nick Manes

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) said he is proud to be part of the 5% of first- and second-generation immigrants, commonly known as “new Americans,” that make up the Michigan Legislature.

However, Camilleri says that while representation of immigrant lawmakers has come a long way in the last few decades, there still is more work to be done.

Camilleri’s grandparents and father immigrated to Southwest Detroit from Malta in the 1960s in search of new opportunities. There his grandfather started work at an air conditioning factory. 

“That is something that I think really grounds my experience. This country is one that has welcomed my family and has allowed for them to find economic opportunity,” Camilleri said. “And also the ‘American Dream’ isn’t available for everybody, which is certainly a perspective that I need to bring to the Legislature, knowing that we have struggled, but we still have success.”

Camilleri became the first-ever Maltese-American to serve in Michigan’s Legislature when he was elected in 2016. And as the son of a Mexican-American mother, he was elected as the youngest Latino lawmaker in the state’s history.

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A recent study done by New American Leaders, a New York-based nonpartisan organization focused on helping new Americans run for office, shows that only 5.4% of Michigan’s lawmakers are first- or second- generation immigrants.

The new Americans currently serving in the Legislature are all Democrats: Reps. Alex Garza (D-Taylor), Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn), Padma Kuppa (D-Troy), Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw), Camilleri and Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor).

A lack of political representation for marginalized groups isn’t unique to Michigan, however. 

Of the 7,383 state legislators across the country, only 3.5% of all seats are filled by new Americans, the study shows. Blacks make up 9.9%, Latinx make up 4.2% and Asian Pacific Islanders make up 2% of all state seats.

The majority of state politicians in the U.S. are white (81%) and male (71%).

There are nine states that have no new Americans serving in their Legislatures, including Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and South Dakota. 

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“Systemic racism is part of the fabric and foundation of the American political project,” said Nura Sedique, a New American Leaders research fellow. “With that in mind, there was some expectation that some states would be further along than they are, given that they have a more diverse set of constituents … The fact that nearly one-fifth of American states have no new American representation is compelling.”

The Michigan Legislature has seen improvement in increasing representation of immigrant lawmakers in recent years. 

There was no Latinx representation in the state’s legislature until 1998 when Belda Garza was elected into the Michigan House of Representatives.

There are currently five Latinx legislators serving in Michigan, which is the highest percent of Latinx representation the state has seen at one time. 

“Latinos have been in Michigan for over 100 hundred years, but it took them until 1998 to ever make it to the state Legislature, and since then we’ve had, I think, 13 is the total. We have a lot of work to do,” Camilleri said. 

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Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders, says there is hope for a shift in the right direction, especially once new district lines are drawn to put an end to gerrymandering.

In 2018, Proposal 2 was passed that changes the way Michigan’s political lines are drawn for congressional and state legislative districts. Now an independent commission of 13 residents, consisting of four Republicans, four Democrats and five unaffiliated individuals, will reconstruct the new district lines.

“We can expect incremental changes in numbers during the 2020 elections and after redistricting tied to the Census in 2022,” Bhojwani said. “But even with inspiring role models like U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), we won’t see these numbers grow meaningfully without systemic changes like independent redistricting commissions and public financing for campaigns.”

Camilleri said he is hopeful that a change is coming after seeing more conversation around race in the Capitol and in his own district, largely following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May.

“I do think that there are folks who may not have been paying as close attention to these types of issues around race and racism in our society, especially in communities where you may have never had those types of conversations before, and we are starting to see a shift,” Camilleri said.

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His own community, the majority-white area of Downriver, has had dozens of protests for Black lives and against police brutality since the killing of Floyd.

“I’ve never seen protests in Downriver for anything,” Camilleri said. “And I would have never thought that you would see that type of movement here in our area, but we did. And I think that people are waking up, and they want to see change.”

Growing up and now representing a community that is largely composed of people who don’t look like you may seem like a challenge for some, but Camilleri sees it as an opportunity. 

“I think that I bring a different perspective, especially being Latino, too. I have that perspective of lifting up communities of color and being the first person of color to represent my district. It’s important to me,” Camilleri said. “Those stories are ones that are often not told in the State Capitol. So not only can I represent my own district and everybody in my community, but I can also shine a light on some of the stories of struggle and success for some of our more marginalized communities.”