How a Filipino immigrant became a mayor in New Jersey | Inquirer

How a Filipino immigrant became a mayor in New Jersey and changed the political landscape

Fil-Am lawyer Arvin Amatorio was sworn in for his second term as mayor of Bergenfield, New Jersey last week
/ 06:35 PM January 09, 2024

Mayor Arvin Amatorio receiving key and book from New Jersey first lady

Fil-Am lawyer Arvin Amatorio – with First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy, wife of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in this photo – was recently reelected as mayor of Bergenfield, New Jersey. CONTRIBUTED

BERGENFIELD, NJ — When Arvin Amatorio left the Philippines in 2002, he arrived in the United States as a 30-year-old immigrant, wondering at times how he would start a new chapter of his life in a foreign country. 

Now, 22 years later, he is serving his second term as mayor of Bergenfield, a town of more than 28,000 people in the northeastern corner of New Jersey. 

“I arrived in the US with no plans to run for public office or dreams that I will become a mayor someday. Like most immigrants, we come here to work, follow our families or go to school,” said Amatorio. 

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“But when we are in our adopted country, things can change. And when opportunities come to serve not just the Filipino community that we belong to but the entire community as a whole, we feel the need [to fulfill] certain obligations.”

Amatorio – a Democrat, an immigration attorney and a son of public school teachers from Baler, Quezon – was sworn in last week at the Bergenfield Borough Hall Council Chambers for his second mayoral term.

Surrounded by his family, community leaders, state high-ranking officials and dignitaries – including First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy, wife of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy – Amatorio spoke, thanking his supporters and at times choking back tears, and gleefully smiled. 


“Reflecting on my commitment four years ago, I pledged to focus on four key agendas: infrastructure upgrade, economic development, finance stabilization, and investments in recreational facilities for our youth,” he said during his swearing-in ceremony. “I’m delighted to report that we’ve not only met but exceeded these goals, thanks to the outstanding team we’ve cultivated in Bergenfield…”

The crowd cheered and gave him a standing ovation.

Making of a mayor


Amatorio’s rise from a first-generation immigrant to – technically – the first-ever Filipino elected mayor in a predominantly white and upper-middle class town of Bergenfield is a remarkable story, and it debunks insidious myths that immigrants lack the necessary leadership qualities. 

Amatorio, 52, started his political career when he was elected as council member in 2014. At that time Robert Rivas, another Filipino lawyer, took office as appointed mayor of Bergenfield. 

Four years later, Amatorio was reelected to the council for a second term. But before the term ended, he decided to run for mayor against the incumbent, Norman Schmelz, who is white and a supporter of former Republican President Donald Trump.

Running against Schmelz, a two-term mayor and a native of Bergenfield, gave Amatorio a tough election year.

Bergenfield Mayor Arvin Amatorio working at his desk

Fil-Am lawyer Arvin Amatorio is the mayor of Bergenfield, dubbed “Little Manila” of New Jersey. CONTRIBUTED

A few days before the general election, Schmelz accused Amatorio of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and practicing law without a license. Schmelz called on Amatorio to withdraw from the race.

The trafficking accusation, which Amatorio said Schmelz used as political trope, was dismissed by a local court. In 2006, Amatorio passed the New York Bar Exam and has been a licensed immigration lawyer.

“When I got elected for the first time, the feeling [of victory] was different. I won a highly contested election,” he said.

“At that time, [the disinformation] on social media about me was unbearable—I don’t even want my kids to see those things, the violence thrown against me, the racism and all those terrible things that you wouldn’t want your family to see,” he added. “His (Schmelz) followers didn’t like me because I was doing something wrong, but because of who I am, my accent and the color of my skin.”

‘Little Manila’ of New Jersey

Known for its good schools districts, modest homes and tree-lined parks, Bergenfield is located in Bergen County, the most populous county in New Jersey, about 20 miles from New York City.  

Dubbed “Little Manila,” the town’s population is more than 18 percent Filipino, according to census data.

With its proximity to New York City, the presence of Filipinos is palpable in Bergenfield. Each summer the legacy of Filipinos here is celebrated by thousands at the Filipino Heritage Festival. 

“You will find a wide array of Filipino restaurants in Bergenfield. On the streets, at the grocery stores, and almost everywhere you will hear someone speaking in Tagalog or Kapampangan,” said L. de los Reyes, a caregiver who immigrated to Bergenfield a few years ago. “I’m proud that we have a Filipino mayor!”

Bergenfield Mayor Arvin Amatorio with Fil-Ams

Newly reelected Mayor of Bergenfield Arvin Amatorio, shown in this photo with his Fil-Am constituents, is a first-generation Filipino immigrant. CONTRIBUTED

Amatorio first came to the United States to follow his then-girlfriend Ilya, a Filipina registered nurse. When she decided to stay, Amatorio also decided to join her. 

They lived in Manhattan, where Ilya worked at Mount Sinai Hospital and Amatorio was preparing for his New York bar exam. 

After they got married, the couple felt that a suburban environment in Bergenfield would be a better place to raise children. The couple now have two sons.

Changing US politics

The election of Amatorio and a handful of first- and second-generation Asian American immigrants over the last four years, experts say, are reshaping the US political landscape at a pace never seen before.

Boston, Cincinnati and Seattle are among cities that elected their first mayor of Asian descent, which illustrates the emergence of a generation of Asians who have become more effective agents in the political process. 

“I’m very happy to see this trend, not just in the Filipino community but across other ethnic backgrounds. I don’t feel [intimidated] to say this even in front of many people in our state: ‘I always want to challenge immigrants to not just sit on the sidelines; they need to do their part and become a part of the electoral system.’ America is a diverse country, and our voices must be heard,” said Amatorio.

First-generation immigrant voters comprise 10 percent of the US voting population. While they are among the fastest-growing group of the electorate, reports say, they are vastly underrepresented at all levels of elected office. 

“In the Philippines, people are very engaged in the elections; everybody wants to vote and takes part in the electoral process. Here in the United States, while a lot of people are engaged in the issues, they are not motivated to go out to vote, especially in local elections,” said Amatorio. “So, it’s not just about introducing who you are and your background as a candidate – but you really have to go out and make people aware of your election platform. That’s why it is very challenging.”

Among Filipino Americans, Benjamin Cayetano of Hawaii is the first and so far the only person of Filipino descent who became a state governor. Virginia Representative Robert Cortez-Scott is the first Filipino American to be elected in the U.S. Congress. 

Amatorio plans to finish his second term as mayor of Bergenfield, he said. He admits that “when there’s an opportunity or when there’s a need” in the future, he is open “to step up.”

“What I want to be remembered for is that I am not just a Filipino mayor. I love the Filipino community, but I am a mayor for everyone and I serve the entire Bergenfield community,” said Amatorio. “I want to be an inspiration for the next generation and for immigrants that they should not be afraid of getting heard and be part of the political process.”

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TAGS: Fil-Am, Filipino American achievers, Filipino American mayor
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