Scholar talks nonprofit political reform

Photo by Tianfang Yu |

Sayu Bhojwani, visiting scholar at Eagleton Institute of Politics, speaks at Wood Lawn Mansion.

Sayu Bhojwani lost her first job in the United States on her first day when her employer discovered that she did not have a green card. Under the strict deadline of an F-1 student visa, she had to start searching from scratch and eventually settled for a disappointing second-tier job. 

Bhojwani, who eventually became New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, feels lucky that her immigration story has a happy ending despite the structural barriers she faced. 

Now a visiting scholar at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and its Immigration and Democracy program, Bhojwani gave a seminar yesterday entitled “(Re)Emerging Political Actors: Nonprofits and Immigrant Incorporation” at the Wood Lawn Mansion on Douglass campus.

It is mostly nonprofit organizations that work with America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, she said. On a micro level, they provide culturally competent and linguistically fluent services, serving a niche that might not otherwise be served. 

“People remain very afraid of interacting with any government authority regardless of their citizenship status,” Bhojwani said. 

She experienced being the trusted messenger when working with immigration services. While tracking down past applications, she found that many South Asians who had been silent for years spoke to her simply because she shared their ethnicity. 

This is in part due to fear of hostility. Bhojwani pointed out that for many immigrants, a belief exists that they are supposed to take care of themselves and not talk about their problems. 

“When there is economic competition, people feel threatened and find somebody to blame,” she said. “It comes from a human desire to care for the self and family, which will never change”. 

Such competition is not new, but the difference is that past immigrants entered a young nation that was much more open. That openness started to decrease in part because more non-English speaking, non-Protestant immigrants started to arrive.

Initially, Americans urged these new immigrants to cut off ties to their homeland and become fully American, but now immigrants are encouraged to keep their cultural ties.

Multi-racial coalitions are also crucial, but people are still thinking in the framework of their own ethnic identity.

The stigma that all people of a certain racial minority group think the same way is another reason for intersectional cooperation. 

Bhojwani cited a recent problem in New York where Chinatown leaders could not come to an agreement about a public complaint that outside parties used as an excuse for inaction. This would not even make sense in a business community, where people would naturally come to a compromise.

Her prescription for change is policy reform. 

“Every policy is an immigrant policy today,” Bhojwani said. “However, reform will not happen without immigrants in political leadership.”

Bhojwani admitted she has little patience for complaints about being unable to find diverse candidates for leadership positions, which she feels are excuses for employers who are not searching hard enough. In fact, she experienced the opposite when she realized that her staff consisted of five women of color. 

To her, the inclusion of immigrants is not just an act of goodness but also a rational investment in America’s future. 

She said data shows that immigrants are seeking jobs in agriculture and technology that native-born Americans either do not want or are not qualified for. 

Even when immigrants return to their homeland, they carry an American perspective abroad, allowing these ideals to be transported, Bhojwani said. 

“We want to be the democracy that we say we are,” she said. “We do not want to live in a society where a large number of people do not know the political process.” 

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton, said this was Bhojwani’s second lecture at Eagleton. Mandel advised students to sign up for Bhojwani’s “Politics and the New Majority” course in the fall, which discusses political participation in Asian and Latino communities. 

Randi Chmielewski, public relations specialist at the Eagleton, said they specifically reached out to the non-profit community for the event, but that students are always the main audience. 

“We want to give students the opportunity to hear from practitioners and academics that might not appear in their classrooms,” she said.

Lin Lan

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