In the spring of 2006, more than three million immigrants—most of them originally from Mexico—marched through the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Detroit, Denver , Dallas, and dozens of other U.S. cities, to protest peacefully for a comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Though few are voters—and even fewer in swing districts— migrants’ remarkably disciplined, law-abiding collective actions sent a message—“we are workers and neighbors, not criminals” that resonated on Capitol Hill. The protests caught almost all observers by surprise—including many in immigrant communities.
Mexican migrants, who formed a majority of participants in many of the cities, moved from being subjects of policy reform to having a voice in the debate on the reform. Never before had Mexican migrants taken such a visible role in a national policy discussion. The decision by hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, housewives, students, farmworkers, including both seniors and children, to come together to pursue a right to full membership in U.S. society suggests a major turning point in what has been the slow but steady construction of a shared pan-Latino immigrant collective identity in the United States. “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” was one of the most popular slogans in these series of protests in a short two-month period. This huge wave of civic engagement reveals a process that has been taking place often silently but consistently: the emergence of Mexican migrants as actors in American civic and political life.
Many Mexican migrants not only contribute to civic and political endeavors in U.S. society, but also remain simultaneously engaged as part of Mexican society. Rather than producing a contradiction of divided loyalties, these dual commitments tend to be mutually reinforcing. For many Mexican migrant organizations, efforts to help their hometowns in Mexico often lead to engagement in U.S. society through similar civic and political efforts in their new hometowns in the United States. Many of the most sophisticated migrant organizations maintain an ongoing commitment on both sides of the border that includes both assistance to their communities of origin and programs tied to their new home communities in the United States. We refer to this dual engagement as “civic binationality,” a process of developing active civic engagement in two countries.