Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Trends | Wilson Center

Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement Trends

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Webcast Recap

The 2008 elections showed the power of the Latino electorate. Latino voters were credited with delivering Barack Obama victories in the important swing states of Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and North Carolina. A record 7.4 percent of all 2008 voters were Latinos. On the back of heavy Latino turnout for Obama, advocates of comprehensive immigration reform are pressing their case for legislation to pass the Democratic-held Congress this year. Panelists traced developments from the massive immigrant-rights rallies of 2006 to the present, emphasizing the importance of the Latino vote and, more broadly, the linkages between political participation and immigrant integration.

The conference brought together Washington policymakers with Latino immigrant leaders from around the country and was the capstone of the Institute's MacArthur-funded research initiative on immigrant civic and political participation. The study examined Latino civic and political life in the cities of: Charlotte, NC; Washington, DC; Fresno, CA; San Jose, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Omaha, NE; Tucson, AZ; Chicago, IL; and, Los Angeles, CA.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Having a marked-up bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee by the fall would be the best-case scenario for CIR legislation, Esther Olavarria, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said. She added that the House of Representatives would be the better first venue, but that leaders there say they will not precede the Senate in drafting a bill for fear of exposing some Members to the difficulties of a vote. Many factors will influence the timing and content of the legislation, she said. Oscar Chacón, Executive Director, National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, said that many Latino immigrants do not know the U.S. system well enough to understand why there should be difficulties passing the legislation, considering the Democratic majorities in Congress and the administration's support for the legislation. "We need to be clear about what we want, but we need to know what is feasible," he said. The heated media-driven political debate on immigration needs to be reframed to enable a policy-focused discussion, Marcelo Gaete, Vice-President, Public and Governmental Affairs, Entravision, added. CIR and the Latino vote are interdependent, Jonathan Fox, Professor, Department of Latin American and Latino Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, said.

U.S. Immigration Enforcement Policy

On enforcement, panelists said that the United States needs a sound employer-verification system (Marc Rosenblum, Senior Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Institute, and Olavarria) and that policy priorities should deemphasize enforcement in favor of country-of-origin economic development projects, such as those related to microfinance (Chacón). Such projects would be more effective at controlling migration flows than border or workplace enforcement, Chacón indicated. However Rosenblum said no development models exist for immediate implementation that correlate directly to decreased flows. Gaete and Olavarria concurred that for political reasons enforcement rhetoric must necessarily precede any discussion on immigration reform, since the centerpiece of reform is the legalization of undocumented persons. Chacón said perverse incentives exist in current U.S. enforcement policy, citing the incarceration of undocumented immigrants on identity-theft charges. In a related vein, Lourdes Gouveia, Professor and Director, Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, University of Nebraska-Omaha, warned about "interior enforcement," i.e. workplace raids. Alice Bennett, Associate Organizer, Helping Empower Local People, said that local enforcement of federal immigration policy, enabled through the federal 287g program, has caused pain and grief in the heavily immigrant Latino community of Charlotte, NC. She said the program, which allows local police to hold arrestees suspected of being in violation of immigration law, and other efforts perceived as selectively targeting the Latino community, such as anti-drunk driving actions, have inhibited relationships between immigrant communities and local governments. From Tucson, Florencio I. Zaragoza, President, Fundación México, said death is a daily reality at the U.S.-Mexico border, and that many would-be migrants perish yearly in the desert.

The Latino Vote

Latino voters played decisive roles in the 2008 general election and in key primaries for both parties, Gaete said. The Latino vote was the margin of victory for John McCain's victory over Mitt Romney in Florida and put Hillary Clinton over Obama in California and Texas. In the presidential election, Latinos were notably decisive in states that Obama won in spite of losing the white vote, such as North Carolina and New Mexico, Rosenblum said. Factors accounting for higher-than-average Latino turnout included a spike in naturalizations in 2008, prompted by a fee increase, which created a bigger pool of eligible voters, he said. The eligible population of Latino voters is growing, Gaete said, noting that 30,000-40,000 Latinos turn 18 every month. Still, Latinos vote at rates lower than the general public for many reasons, panelists said. These reasons include socioeconomic factors, such as the imperative to meet basic needs and a lack of English-language proficiency; bureaucratic factors, such as citizenship-application backlogs; and, political factors, such as disenchantment with candidates, inability to distinguish between parties, uncompetitive races, and ineffective or absent campaign outreach efforts.

As Latinos gain political clout, politicians may perceive diminishing returns from the use of anti-immigrant rhetoric, some panelists indicated. Juan José González, Field Director, New Americans Democracy Project, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Rights, sensed some politicians are unsure whether anti-immigrant rhetoric brings a net benefit. Angelica Salas, Executive Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said some politicians may perceive that anti-immigrant rhetoric, while mobilizing the base, fails to win over undecided voters or attract new voters. Israel Fuentes, President, El Comité de Unidad Guatemalteco/Guatemalan Unity Committee, suggested that the removal of a billboard advertising the Minuteman Project in Las Vegas showed that anti-immigrant rhetoric was declining in popularity. Fox noted that areas of new immigrant settlement are all the more important politically because they have not been discounted electorally, such as is the case for a state with a high Latino population like California.

Citizenship and Naturalization

Panelists discussed nationwide get-out-the-vote and citizenship drives for Latinos. They cited difficulties in mobilizing Latinos because of inadequate infrastructure among non-governmental organizations. This was cited as the case especially in areas of recent Latino immigrant settlement, such as in the Midwest (Gouveia). Because of this deficiency, media campaigns have become a viable alternative for such drives, such as the Ya es Hora ¡Ciudadania! campaign, Gaete said. Labor unions, community-based organizations, and political parties also have had significant get-out-the-vote campaigns, he said.

Luvia Quiñones, Associate Director, New Americans Initiative (NAI), Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), cited the partly state-funded NAI program for a recent 48-percent increase in naturalization rates in Illinois. Crucial to the effectiveness of the NAI, she said, is the use of "scare tactics," or convincing legal permanent residents (LPRs) that even they may be subject to immigration proceedings if they do not obtain citizenship. She said that stronger Latino political participation is correlated to LPR naturalization rates. David Ayón, Senior Research Associate, Leavy Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University, questioned whether constraints exist for state-funded projects such as NAI. He suggested that media-driven projects, such as the ¬Ya Es Hora ¡Ciudadania! campaign and other factors help to explain the post-2006 increase in naturalization applications. Teresa Castellanos, Interim Director, Office of Human Relations, County of Santa Clara (California), said media and state-funded campaigns are complementary.

Olavarria cited a Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) program to promote citizenship that prioritizes those states with the largest numbers of eligible candidates, such as Texas, but that funding for the program is small.

Immigrant Integration & Local Government Responses

Participants discussed local challenges to implementing successful immigrant-integration programs. The lack of a national standard for immigrant integration and changes in federal immigration policy complicate local and state efforts to implement programs, Castellanos said. But she added that the City of San Jose's immigrant-integration program has been successful at creating a space where immigrants from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds can gather and build common cause on important issues. Ricardo Gambetta, Manager of Inclusive Communities Program, National League of Cities, and Xóchitl Bada, Assistant Professor, Latin American and Latino Studies Program, University of Illinois, Chicago, both held up the example of Littleton, CO, as a local government that has implemented a successful immigrant-integration program.

Castellanos noted that other barriers within the Latino community block citizenship and integration. National pride, self-identification with their country of origin, racism, and the perception of the United States as an imperial power in Latin America all are such barriers, she said. Chacón echoed this comment, saying that many immigrants cling to Spanish as an important marker of self-identification in a U.S. society they feel has turned its back on them. Higher levels of immigrant integration are prompting discussions on the ways Latinos are affecting conceptions of American-ness, Fox said. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Project Director, Center for Labor Research and Education, University of California at Los Angeles, remarked on the evolving formation of pan-Latino political and ethnic identities.

Latino Political Participation and Civic Engagement

Participants discussed barriers to enhanced Latino political participation and civic engagement. Olavarria remarked on the following: 1) processing backlogs for citizenship applications; 2) a lack of Latino ethnic role models in government (the relative low numbers of Latino political officeholders and congressional staffers); 3) lack of legal status of many Latino immigrants; and, 4) socioeconomic factors, especially the fact that many immigrants find themselves in "survival mode," focused on meeting daily material needs. Numerous participants noted that English-language programs are crucial to boosting integration levels. They stressed that for such programs to be maximally successful they must be innovative, creative, and effectively reach out to Latino immigrants in ways that accommodate work schedules or that take place on worksites. Concerns on language proficiency, however, are less acute for second-generation Latinos. Chacón noted deficiencies among Latinos in English-language learning, but he also said education deficiencies at the secondary level are prevalent for non-Latinos too. "We are underpreparing our kids across the board," he said.

Panelists described campaigns to increase Latino civic engagement and political participation. Quiñones cited an integrated process in the creation of voters beginning with political participation, then citizenship, and finally voting. Salas remarked that the CHIRLA campaign, "Hoy Marchamos; Mañana Votamos," capitalized on the momentum from the 2006 immigrant-rights rallies, held nationwide against legislation to criminalize undocumented persons. Campaigns should not stop with the creation of voters; rather efforts should continue to engage Latinos in the political process as officeholders and active constituents, she said.

Leni González, Chair, Board of Directors, Shirlington (Virginia) Employment and Education Center, noted that trends in Latino political participation and civic engagement are highly dependent on local context. Virginia, a state with only recent Latino immigrant settlement, she said, is different than areas with longer immigrant-receiving traditions, such as Las Vegas or Chicago. Latino immigrants in some parts of Virginia have faced a hostile political climate, demonstrated in some bills put before the state legislature, she indicated.

To advance common goals, immigrant groups should forge alliances with non-immigrant groups, Myrna Martínez Nateras, Director, Pan Valley Institute, American Friends Service Committee, said. Fuentes and Michael Klein, MEChA student representative, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, underscored the importance of youth in promoting the 2006 rallies and in furthering Latino immigrant political participation and civic engagement.

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088