Mexican Migrant Civic and Political Participation
Introduction and Panel I: Research Update: Key Trends in Mexican Migrant Participation
Andrew Selee welcomed the audience to the public portion of a two-day long conference discussing the civic and political participation of Mexican migrants. He noted that while U.S immigration policy has captured debate in Washington, less attention has been paid to the role of migrants as important political and social actors in both the United States and Mexico.
Conference organizer Jonathan Fox of the University of California, Santa Cruz observed that while the number of Mexicans in the United States is recognized, the presence of Mexican society often is not. Many Mexican migrant workers are trying to become full members of both nations, engaging in "civic binationality." Fox then set out four main ideas to be discussed at the meeting: 1) How migrants are organizing themselves in relation both to the United States and to Mexico, 2) How participation can be viewed through the lens of the concept of "migrant civil society," 3) How migrants understand their own actions and decision-making progresses, and 4) How to bring migrant leaders to the table to participate in decision-making and setting public agendas.
Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center drew on extensive data from Pew's surveys and from the 2004 National Population Survey to display some general trends in the migrant population, especially with regards to voting and civic participation. He emphasized that the rapid population growth in the United States has not meant equally rapid growth in the Latino electorate: while the population of migrants grew by 5.7 million between the last two elections, 3.6 million of them were not eligible to vote. Suro also noted that the rate of participation in civic activities is much lower for foreign-born and non-naturalized citizens than for naturalized citizens, though churches and schools form important nodes for civic engagement of immigrant Latinos.
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado of the San Diego-based New Americans Immigration Museum and Learning Center explored migrant civic participation in Hometown Associations (HTAs): self-help, civic, voluntary migrant organizations started by migrants from the same communities of origin in Mexico. These groups operate on three levels, the largest being federations, which bring together HTAs from the same state in Mexico. Many of the federations have become important channels through which they can integrate into U.S. society and shape public policy on a binational level.
In the specific case of Chicago, Xóchitl Bada of Notre Dame University presented the results of a comprehensive investigation of the city's 270 Mexican hometown associations. The largest Mexican population in Chicago is from the state of Michoacán and their success in forming effective HTAs was recognized in 2000, when Mayor Daley declared the 3rd week of June to be "Michoacan Culture Week."
The audience and panelists discussed the overall decline in traditional U.S. voluntary associations, in contrast to growth in immigrant voluntary associations. These immigrant-run organizations both address concerns in members' towns of origin, including sending millions in remittances to community development projects, and at the same time help them adjust to life in the United States by aiding them in getting drivers' licenses, naturalizing, and registering as voters. They appear to encourage "civic binationality," a process of dual incorporation into two societies at the same time.
Panel II: Civic Leadership Panel Discussion - Lessons & Challenges
Facilitator Monica Lozano, Publisher and CEO of La Opinión newspaper, the largest Spanish language daily in the United States, set the stage for the second panel of the day, "Civic Leadership Panel Discussion - Lessons & Challenges," by asking the participants to elaborate on the evolution of Mexican migrant organization in the United States from more informal associations to legitimate institutions. She questioned the degree to which the agendas of migrant organizations overlap with those of major Latino organizations and how that potential intersection has an impact on the issue of civic binationality.
The Executive Vice-President of UNITE HERE International Union, María Elena Durazo, asserted that while migrant and Latino organizations often share similar opinions on the issues facing their constituents, there is a disconnect between the two group in terms of their relative priorities. Migrant organizations are far more likely to emphasize the importance of civic participation, citizenship, and workers' rights. She highlighted the fact that even non-citizens, who may not have money or votes, can still mobilize, volunteer, and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Guadalupe Gómez, Vice-President of Federación de Clubes Zacatecanos in Southern California, advocated the need to reject the generalization that migrants, in particular Mexican migrants, only care about their countries of origin. He called for the creation of a truly binational civic agenda that would demand the coordination of efforts between the Latino and the migrant organizations in developing long-term strategies and allow them to more effectively address common concerns.
On the issue of civic binationality, Ann Marie Tallman, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, challenged the notion that Mexico's recent migrant right to vote poses a potential conflict of political and civic allegiances. While she reaffirmed the importance of integrating migrants into U.S. civic society, she disputed the assumption that they should then abandon all loyalties to their homeland. This sort of civic duality is made all the more possible by the growing influence of the hometown association infrastructure which allows the groups to provide services for migrants in the United States, but also to influence policy back in Mexico.
Jesús García explained the importance of full enfranchisement for the migrant community if they are to have a serious impact on state and federal policy. García, Executive Director of Little Village Community Development Corporation and a former state legislator in Illinois, cited recent successes in Illinois where the state has invested $9 million over three years in a program called the New American Initiative, which aims to encourage 500,000 immigrants to become new citizens over the next several years. He added that certain districts in Illinois are even making certain migrant-friendly concessions, such as allowing non-naturalized community members to vote in school board elections.
The President and CEO of National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguía, asserted that as of right now, the United States effectively has no immigration policy and the border states are dealing with the issue "in a vacuum." She urged a change in the discussion on immigration away from the mindset that immigrant workers come to the United States to steal jobs from American citizens. She emphasized the need for traditional Latino organizations, such as NCLR, to build bridges with newer migrant-run organizations to incorporate recent immigrants in policy debates about immigration reform and civil rights.
Jesús Martínez-Saldaña, a state representative from the Michoacán State Legislature, agreed that joining a labor union, along with seeking a better education or starting a new business, has been among the best ways for migrants to integrate into American civil society. He added that Mexico too is guilty of having no ascertainable migration policy and that the mobilized migrant community in the United States has been gradually forcing the federal and state governments in Mexico to engage migrants in their policy-making.