The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants


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Caroline B. Brettell
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

In 2000, Robert Putnam published his influential book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he argued that social capital, civic engagement, and a sense of community have been on the decline in America since the 1960s.1 Putnam noted that participation in social organizations and associations, which presumably fostered trust, had diminished, and this had serious implications for the strength of democracy and democratic values. As Melissa Marschall stated, Putnam’s work addressed the question of “how and why the U.S. metamorphosized from a model of civic virtue and social connectedness to a nation of non-voters and non-joiners.”2

In the ensuing years, many scholars have debated if not powerfully challenged Putnam’s deployment of social capital as well as some of his conclusions and policy recommendations.3 They have critiqued his approach for its narrow interpretation of the motivations behind associational membership and for the absence of full consideration of diversity within the American population. Yet at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, concerns about low voter turnout and limited political engagement remain. Scholars have begun to explore alternative explanatory factors for these trends while maintaining an interest in the role of organizations and associations as civic spaces. Further, beginning in the mid to late 1990s and continuing to the present, these broad concerns have also resulted in research focused in particular on the political and civic participation of immigrants and their children.

By the 1990s, many undocumented immigrants who had been able to attain legal status as a result of the Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA) of 1986 were eligible for citizenship and/or to vote. Individuals who had entered the United States under the 1980 Refugee Act were also quickly eligible for citizenship and the children of both these populations, often born in the United States, were growing to adulthood. Additionally, many individuals who entered the United States on various student and work visas (for example, H-1B visas) were able to adjust their status and gradually move toward legal permanent residence (securing a “green card”) and eventually citizenship.4 In other words, all the demographic stars were aligned to make the civic and political incorporation of immigrants and their children an intriguing research question, not only in the United States5 but also in Western Europe.6

This research paper offers a review of some of the major findings and conclusions of this literature.7 Given the diversity of the population of immigrants and their children, this review is by no means exhaustive. This paper does, however, attempt to capture the most significant dimensions of the debates surrounding the political and civic engagement of immigrants. Where appropriate I have introduced some material from two focus groups that I conducted in the Dallas area, one with individuals of Chinese origin and one with individuals of Asian Indian background. The participants in each group, most of whom were over age fifty and had been in the United States for some time, were naturalized citizens, although there was someone in the Indian group who was of the second generation.

The paper is divided into four sections. The first section introduces the data on rates of participation in the political sphere within the broad categories of Latino and Asian populations, as well as particular barriers to such participation. The second section explores the significance of the process of naturalization. The third section addresses the civic and political participation of the second generation: the children of immigrants who are American citizens by birth and hence do not confront the naturalization barrier. The final section addresses, in particular, the role of voluntary organizations and faith-based institutions in fostering the civic and political integration and engagement of immigrant populations.


  • 1Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
  • 2Melissa J. Marschall, “Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community: Empirical Foundations, Causal Mechanisms, and Policy Implications,” in The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Public Policy Administration, ed. Martin Lodge, Edward C. Page, and Steven J. Balla (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 2.
  • 3See Steven N. Durlauf, “Bowling Alone: A Review Essay,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 47 (2002): 259–273; and Dietlind Stolle and Marc Hooghe, “Inaccurate, Exceptional, One-Sided or Irrelevant? The Debate about the Alleged Decline of Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Western Societies,” British Journal of Political Science 35 (1) (2005): 149–167.
  • 4Caroline B. Brettell, “Adjustment of Status, Remittances, and Return: Some Observations on 21st Century Migration Processes,” City and Society 19 (2007): 47–59.
  • 5Gary Gerstle and John Mollenkopf, eds., E Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001); S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Janelle Wong, Democracy’s Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006); S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Irene Bloemraad, “Introduction: Civic and Political Inequalities,” in Civic Hopes and Political Realities: Immigrants, Community Organizations and Political Engagement, ed. S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Irene Bloemraad (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 1–44; Jennifer Hochschild, Jacqueline Chattopadhyay, Claudine Gay, and Michael Jones-Correa, eds., Outsiders No More: Models of Immigrant Political Incorporation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Mary Waters and Marisa Gerstein Pineau, The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies of Sciences, 2015), chap. 4.
  • 6Meindert Fennema and Jean Tillie, “Political Participation and Political Trust in Amsterdam: Civic Communities and Ethnic Networks,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 25 (1999): 703–726; Dirk Jacobs, Karen Phalet, and Marc Swyngedouw, “Associational Membership and Political Involvement Among Ethnic Minority Groups in Brussels,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30 (3) (2004): 543–559; Jean Tillie, “Social Capital of Organizations and Their Members: Explaining the Political Integration of Immigrants in Amsterdam,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30 (2004): 529–541; Thomas Huddleston, Migrant Political Participation: A Review of Policies and Integration Results in the OSCE Region (Warsaw: Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2017),; and Katia Pilati and Laura Morales, “Civic and Political Engagement by Immigrant-Background Minorities in Traditional and New Destination European Cities,” in The Politics of New Immigrant Destinations—Transatlantic Perspectives, ed. Stefanie Chambers, Diana Evans, Anthony M. Messina, and Abigail Fisher Williamson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 277–299.
  • 7I am grateful to Dr. Josh Dorfman for his assistance in identifying some of the crucial bibliography for this paper. Josh defended his dissertation in November of 2018 and his Ph.D. was conferred by Southern Methodist University in December of 2018. I am also grateful to Nestor Rodrigues, Roberto Suro, and Michael Jones-Correa for offering leads and providing comments in the form of personal communications. Finally, I want to thank for their invaluable comments and assistance the expert reviewers at the American Academy as well as the Academy staff (particularly Darshan Goux), who supported the work of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.