It’s a story that really isn’t that different from the story of millions of Americans.
And yet. When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared herself the “proud daughter of Indian immigrants” in the Republican response to the State of the Union address last week, her brief personal narrative felt like a departure from the folksy, Kohl’s-shopping, burger-flipping yarns that so many politicians tell about themselves in an election cycle.
Candidates have been laying out politically calculated versions of their origin stories from the stump for as long as we’ve had a popular vote. Haley — a rising GOP star whose name is being bandied about as a possible vice presidential pick — just became the latest ambitious politician to play up not her American rootsiness but her immigrant roots.
On the campaign trail, it seems, being an immigrant’s kid suddenly has cachet.
Among Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has evoked his parents’ emigration from Cuba (while notably titling his 2012 memoir “An American Son”) and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has campaigned with his Cuban-born father at his side. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders last week shouted down Republican contender Donald Trump’s birther rhetoric by comparing his own background with that of the sitting president, saying, “Like Obama, I am the son of an immigrant father.” (And how’s this for a twist: Trump’s mother was an immigrant, too, from Scotland, though no one in Trump’s camp is quite shouting that fact from the rooftops.)
This election cycle, declaring oneself a child of immigrants is to play simultaneously politics and identity politics, to tap into the bootstrapping American value of making one’s way through ingenuity and hard work while, perhaps, making nice with Latino and Asian American voters who may have similar backstories. “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions,” Haley said in her address, “should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
For Haley and other Republicans, drawing attention to a first-generation American upbringing may actually be a delicate dance that also makes their policies seem more palatable, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University. It’s an ideal way to couch the party’s hard line on amnesty and refugees before an election in which immigration policy may well take center stage.
“It legitimizes your position,” says Lawless, “because you can say that you understand that experience on a personal level and this is still how you feel about the issue.
“It’s not this knee-jerk anti-immigrant reaction,” she says. “It’s seen as a reaction linked to their own personal experience.”
Candidates have identified themselves as coming from immigrant stock before, but in the past, it was considered more politically risky. Of our 43 presidents, only seven have had immigrant mothers or fathers, reported Fusion, the news network launched by ABC and Univision, last fall.
John F. Kennedy was widely known to have been just a few generations removed from Irish immigrants, but his family largely played down that heritage, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia. It was only after his election that he embarked on a historic trip to Ireland to visit his familial home, perhaps emboldened by being already in office.
In 1988, Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis evoked his upbringing, arguing in one speech, “The best America is a nation where the son of Greek immigrants, with your help, can seek and win the presidency of the United States.”
But rather than hoping to tap into some Greek American voting bloc, says Lawless, “I really think it was just a bullet on his bio.”
With last Tuesday’s speech, Haley may not have been shoring up the Indian American vote either, but the larger bloc of immigrants and their children, who may make for a powerful force at the polls. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan American Immigration Council, between 1996 and 2012, the number of immigrants and their American-born children who registered to vote rose by more than 10 million.
Haley’s first-generation upbringing is already resonating in the media and in her party. Since Tuesday, she has been described as the “youthful daughter of Indian immigrants,” and by one slightly confused GOP senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, as simply, “an immigrant.”
“On one level, and I think she meant it sincerely, she’s proud to be a daughter of Indian immigrants,” says Deepa Iyer, a senior fellow with the Center for Social Inclusion and the author of “We Too Sing America,” a book that looks at recent immigration. “She’s said that before, many times, and I think she sincerely wants to claim it. And it is a way to connect to groups of different Americans, given all the demographic shifts we’re seeing in the country.”
But, Iyer says, it’s also a way to show the Republican Party as anything but “xenophobic and divisive.”