The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants

Inclusion and Exclusion: Rates of and Barriers to Participation

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Caroline B. Brettell
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Of paramount concern in the literature under review is the question of whether the rates of political participation and civic engagement (in the form of volunteerism and other activities within both private and public spheres) among immigrants are lower than those of native-born individuals, and if so, what are the barriers to participation that immigrants, in particular, confront.8  In general terms, these barriers vary according to stage of immigration and settlement (with factors of age and time of entry being important) as well as by legal and socioeconomic status. As suggested to this author by immigration scholar Nestor Rodrigues,9  at one end of the continuum are undocumented migrants who are employed in low-income jobs and living in daily fear of deportation. Their primary concern is simply to work and survive; they are hardly focused on issues of civic and political engagement. It is generally left to their children, those who are either born in or who have for the most part grown up in the United States and who have both more familiarity with the system and a command of the English language, to become more engaged. At the other pole of the continuum are those who have entered the country legally, who are highly educated, and who are employed in high-end professional occupations (as engineers, medical doctors, scientists, etc.). They may be involved in professional association activities that lead them to civic/political engagement or they are personally motivated to participate in the public sphere. They have a good understanding of what is at stake, no matter what end of the political spectrum (liberal to conservative) they situate themselves.


  • 8Loretta E. Bass and Lynne M. Casper, “Differences in Registering and Voting Between Native-Born and Naturalized Americans,” Population Research and Policy Review 20 (2001): 483–511.
  • 9Private communication with Nestor Rodrigues.

Latino Participation and the Latino Vote

In research on questions of inclusion/exclusion in the civic and political spheres, scholars have either focused on Latino population10  or on Asian populations, although some have made comparisons across or within these broad categories. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 29 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2016—constituting 12 percent of all eligible voters.11 However, consistently since 1996 fewer Latinos vote than are eligible to vote—in the 2016 presidential election slightly less than 50 percent voted. In 2018, a higher turnout midterm election for all populations by comparison with midterms of the recent past, voter participation for Latinos rose to 40.4 percent in comparison with 57.5 percent for Whites and 51.4 percent for Blacks. For Latinos this represented an increase of 6.8 million, almost double the number of Latino voters in the 2014 midterms. Further, Latino voters made up 11 percent of all voters across the country, a proportion that corresponded quite closely to their share of the U.S. eligible voter population (U.S. citizens who are eighteen years of age and older).12

The cumulated research on Latinos over the past few decades confirms that this population is both less likely to naturalize by comparison with immigrants of Asian and European backgrounds and also less likely to vote than native-born citizens.13 As Michael Jones-Correa has observed, in studies of the political participation of Latinos, emphasis has been placed on a series of individual characteristics—such as age, education, income, marital status, and linguistic competence.14 Not unexpectedly, researchers generally find that higher levels of education and income and greater English-language abilities are strongly correlated with naturalization, as is length of stay in the country.15 However, Jones-Correa equally identifies some contextual factors that create barriers to naturalization and participation—such as the cost and requirements for naturalization and the complex rules for registration and voting that could affect immigrants in disproportionate ways in comparison with native-born populations. Additionally, discrimination and anti-immigrant legislation can suppress participation (individuals are fearful of drawing attention to their families, some of whom might be undocumented) or they can occasionally galvanize and mobilize it,16 while opportunities for dual nationality (primarily provided by sending countries) can encourage naturalization and by extension participation.

In a personal communication, Roberto Suro also emphasized the role of geography—that Latinos, both immigrants and their descendants, may feel that they only have an impact (i.e., their vote counts) in states where they are a critical mass (California, Texas, New York, Florida), but as the Pew Research Center points out, these are often non-battleground states and hence the impact on presidential elections may be less important.17 Alternatively, certain state environments are more politically charged than others and therefore may mobilize communities to become engaged.18 In a study drawing on data from a three-state survey (California, Texas, Florida) conducted by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in 1997 (following the 1996 national election), Adrian Pantoja and coauthors compared the turnout of naturalized and native-born Latino citizens.19 Their results demonstrated the impact of wedge issues targeting Latino immigrants on political participation. Further, the analysis shows that newly naturalized Latinos turned out to vote at higher rates than other Latino citizens of California, as well as Latinos in Florida or Texas—they are, as the title of the article suggests, “citizens by choice and voters by necessity.”

More recent Pew Research Center data confirm these assessments of more than two decades ago,20 demonstrating that in 2016, among Hispanics as well as Asians, the voter turnout of naturalized citizens was higher than that of the U.S. born, although overall—i.e., across all populations—the U.S. born were more likely to vote.21 See Table 1.22

Table 1. Voter Turnout of Naturalized and Native-Born Citizens, 2016

Total Population Hispanics Asians
U.S. Born: 62.1% U.S. Born: 45.5% U.S. Born: 44.9%
Naturalized: 54.3% Naturalized: 53.4% Naturalized: 51.9%

Source: Pew Research Center, Voter Turnout of Naturalized Citizens, 2017.

This difference between the naturalized and the native born held during the 2018 midterms, reflecting some important trends that might be useful to political parties who want to engage these populations further (see Table 2).

Table 2. Voter Turnout of Naturalized and Native-Born Citizens, 2018

Total Population Hispanics Asians
U.S. Born: 54.2% U.S. Born: 39.0% U.S. Born: 36.7%
Naturalized: 45.7% Naturalized: 44.2.4% Naturalized: 42.7%

Source: Jens Krogstad, Luis Noe-Bustamante, and Antonio Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout Extended Across Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Pew Research Center, 2019.

According to an article published in The Los Angeles Times,23 many of the undocumented children of immigrants (known as Dreamers) worked hard in 2018 to turn out the vote in the Latino communities around Los Angeles.24 The article quotes a study conducted by Latino Decisions, a political research firm, indicating that Latino voter turnout was the key factor in flipping six GOP-held congressional seats in California. However, research by Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa Michelson shows that while “Get Out the Vote” initiatives result in higher turnout among U.S.-born Latinos, it has no measurable effect on Latino naturalized citizens.25 Curiously, they found the opposite to be true among Asian Americans.

Among other contextual factors impacting voter participation are state regulations that impose registration cutoffs before the election or that drop voters from the rolls for not voting, both of which foster less impetus to naturalize and vote. Interestingly, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Thomas Epenshade found that having ballots in Spanish does not necessarily ensure higher voting among first-generation Latinos, and that proximity to co-ethnics has weak effects on voting participation (with the exception of three or more generations of Asian Americans).26 They also found that prior political experience with repressive regimes (in a country of origin) has no consistent effect on voting participation, although others have argued to the contrary, noting that country of origin can have an impact on citizenship acquisition and voter turnout.27 For some immigrant populations (those who came as refugees or who are political asylees), exercising a political voice or even stating that they are politically involved still raises fears because of previous homeland experiences.28

While most scholars have been examining barriers to participation, there is a small body of scholarship that looks at what might foster engagement—hence the interest alluded to above with ballots in multiple languages. Other variables have also been explored. For example, Gilbert Mireles has found that immigrant farmworkers in Washington State who own their own homes display higher rates of both social and political participation than do those who rent.29 Homeownership, he argues, “serves to anchor recent immigrants to their host communities and facilitates the integration of these individuals into those communities.”30 Additionally, knowledge of mobilizing factors provides a better understanding of how to enhance greater political participation. Adrian Pantoja and colleagues, focusing on the lessons learned from the 2006 marches, highlight the role of technology, social networks, Spanish language media, families, churches, unions, and advocacy groups.31 They suggest that protest or “non-traditional” politics should be considered as “key dimensions of how politically marginalized groups can participate in the political arena, and such politics are a central resource for these groups.” The open question is whether such activities turn into votes—the outcomes of some races in 2018 suggest that they can, but that mobilizing the vote around particular issues, using all the mechanisms that are available, including Spanish language media, is equally important.


  • 10In this paper I use the word Latino rather than Latinx to be consistent with the language that is used in the actual publications being discussed.
  • 11Jens M. Krogstad, “Key Facts about the Latino Vote in 2016,” Pew Research Center.
  • 12It is important to note that these are broad rates that do not take variations, such as education and income, into account. A fine-tuned analysis might yield more similarities across populations at similar incomes or educational levels. See Jens Krogstad, Luis Noe-Bustamante, and Antonio Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout Extended Across Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Pew Research Center, 2019.
  • 13See, for example, Rodolfo de la Garza, Louis DeSipio, F. Chris Garcia, John Garcia, and Angelo Falcon, Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992); Michael Jones-Correa, Between Two Nations: The Political Predicament of Latinos in New York City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Michael Jones-Correa, “Institutional and Contextual Factors in Immigrant Naturalization and Voting,” Citizenship Studies 5 (1) (2001): 41–56; Christine Marie Sierra, Teresa Carrillo, Louis DeSipio, and Michael Jones-Correa, “Latino Immigration and Citizenship,” PS: Political Science and Politics 33 (3) (2000): 535–540; S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Thomas Epenshade, “Immigrant Incorporation and Political Participation in the United States,” International Migration Review 35 (3) (2001): 870–909; Matt A. Barreto and José A. Muñoz, “Reexamining the ‘Politics of In-Between’: Political Participation Among Mexican Immigrants in the United States,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 25 (4) (2003): 427–447; F. Chris Garcia and Gabriel Sanchez, Hispanics and the U.S. Political System: Moving into the Mainstream (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008); and Lisa García Bedolla, Latino Politics, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2014).
  • 14Jones-Correa, “Institutional and Contextual Factors in Immigrant Naturalization and Voting.”
  • 15See also Ramakrishnan and Epenshade, “Immigrant Incorporation and Political Participation in the United States.”
  • 16Deborah J. Schildkraut, “The Rise and Fall of Political Engagement among Latinos: The Role of Identity and Perceptions of Discrimination,” Political Behavior 27 (3) (2005): 285–312; Adrian D. Pantoja, Cecilia Menjívar, and Lisa Magaña, “The Spring Marches of 2006: Latinos, Immigration and Political Mobilization in the 21st Century,” American Behavioral Scientist 52 (4) (2008): 499–506; and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Louis DeSipio, and Celeste Montoya, “Latino Mobilization in New Immigrant Destinations: The Anti—HR 4437 Protest in Nebraska’s Cities,” Urban Affairs Review 44 (5) (2009): 718–735.
  • 17Krogstad, “Key Facts about the Latino Vote in 2016.” Additionally, some researchers have emphasized city-level differences as an important contextual factor, with some cities being more decentralized and hence offering greater opportunities within their political structures for immigrant participation. See Roger Waldinger, Still the Promised City? African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). This “city as context” approach—see Caroline B. Brettell, “Bringing the City Back In: Cities as Context for Immigrant Incorporation,” in American Arrivals: Anthropology Engages the New Immigration, ed. Nancy Foner (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2003), 163–195—merits further investigation. What, for example, is the impact of being a sanctuary city (positive or negative) or a city that has implemented an “Office of Welcoming Communities” on civic and political engagement?
  • 18Matt A. Barreto, “Latino Immigrants at the Polls: Foreign-Born Voter Turnout in the 2002 Election,” Political Research Quarterly 58 (1) (2005): 79–86.
  • 19Adrian D. Pantoja, Ricardo Ramirez, and Gary M. Segura, “Citizens by Choice, Voters by Necessity: Patterns in Political Mobilization by Naturalized Latinos,” Political Research Quarterly 54 (4) (2001): 729–750.
  • 20Pew Research Center, “Voter Turnout of Naturalized Citizens,” 2017.
  • 21The difference in the overall population appears to be consistent with results of two decades ago. Drawing on 1996 data, Loretta Bass and Lynne Casper report that, net of other factors, naturalized citizens are less likely to vote than the U.S.-born. Bass and Casper, “Differences in Registering and Voting Between Native-Born and Naturalized Americans.”
  • 22This form of comparison has been made recently by Ruoxi Li and Bradley Jones, albeit between those who moved to the United States at a young age versus those who moved at an older age. See Ruoxi Li and Bradley M. Jones, “Why Do Immigrants Participate in Politics Less than Native-Born Citizens? A Formative Years Explanation,” The Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics 4 (3) (2019): 1–30.
  • 23Jazmine Ulloa, “In the Home of the Dream Act, Young Immigrants Came out in Force on a Personal Quest to Flip Control of the House,” The Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2019.
  • 24For a similar account in the Houston area, see Elizabeth Trovall, “Unable to Vote, Dreamers Take Immigration Issues to the People Who Can,” Houston Chronicle, September 13, 2018.
  • 25Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa R. Michelson, “Mobilization by Different Means: Nativity and GOTV in the United States,” International Migration Review 48 (3) (2014): 710–727.
  • 26Ramakrishnan and Epenshade, “Immigrant Incorporation and Political Participation in the United States.”
  • 27See Catherine S. Bueker, “Political Incorporation among Immigrants from Ten Areas of Origin: The Persistence of Source Country Effects,” International Migration Review 39 (1) (2005): 103–140.
  • 28I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of this paper for drawing this point to my attention.
  • 29Gilbert F. Mireles, “The Effects of Homeownership on Civic Participation among Immigrant Farmworkers in Washington State,” Rural Sociology 82 (1) (2017): 129–148.
  • 30Ibid., 145.
  • 31Pantoja, Menjívar, and Magaña, “The Spring Marches of 2006: Latinos, Immigration and Political Mobilization in the 21st Century,” 504.

Asian American Participation and the Asian American Vote

In recent years, studies of Asian immigration and of Asian American voter participation have expanded significantly, indicating that scholars have recognized that this is one of the fastest growing segments of the electorate and a segment that is very highly educated with high incomes.32  Pei-te Lien and Janelle Wong are two of the most prolific scholars writing about the political participation of Asian Americans.33 Their research demonstrates that the rate of naturalization for Asian immigrants is higher than for most other groups (Cubans are an exception) and that Asian voter turnout has been higher in comparison to that of Latinos, similar to that of non-Hispanic Whites in midterm elections, and lower than that of non-Hispanic Whites in presidential election years.34 In general, the voter turnout among Asian Americans in 2016 was 49 percent compared with 64 percent for non-Hispanic Whites and 66 percent for African Americans.

However, as the 2018 Asian American Voter Survey indicates,35 on average the number of Asian American registered voters has increased by 850,000 every four years since 2000, and the voter turnout rate in the 2018 midterm election increased to approximately 40 percent of all eligible Asian American voters—almost a 13 percent increase from the 2014 midterms.36 One news report has described this as a “coming of age” for this population37 —a population that comprises 6 percent of the total U.S. population (15 percent in California) according to the U.S. Census, and a population that estimates indicate will comprise a little over 5 percent of the 2020 electorate.38 Like Latinos, Asian Americans were mobilized by the highly charged anti-immigrant tone of 2018. Adam Nagourney and Robert Gebeloff reported on the impact of immigrants in flipping four Republican congressional seats in Orange County, California.39 A young Vietnamese woman is quoted as saying, “There are so many of us here and that is what is contributing to these changes.” The Vietnamese population was galvanized by the Trump administration’s attempt to deport Vietnam War refugees. Not only are these districts more diverse, they also have become better educated and have higher household incomes. Voter turnout increased and many second-generation Asians, unlike their parents, tended to vote Democratic in relation to critical issues of immigration, education, and health care.

There are, of course, important variations within the “Asian” category, with Vietnamese and Koreans demonstrating lower rates of registration and voting than, for example, Japanese Americans, who have the highest rate. Further, Vietnamese and Chinese individuals tend to identify more with the Republican Party than do other Asian groups. Jun Xu, drawing on Current Population Survey (CPS) data between 1994 and 2000, explores some of the “intra-Asian” differences, finding, for example, that socioeconomic explanations do not help in understanding differences in participation of Whites and Asians.40 Xu also found that the positive effect of education on voting is more limited for Asian Americans than for Whites. He focuses on registration issues as a powerful hurdle and explanation for different patterns of participation between Asian Americans and Whites. “In general, immigrants are much less likely to register and thereby to vote than native-born individuals do.”41 Others, seeing a great deal of potential in this population, link low voter turnout not only to language barriers (which makes navigating the election process challenging) but also to the fact that politicians make little effort at outreach to Asian groups.42 This was one of the important suggestions made by some of the participants in the two Asian-origin population focus groups that were conducted in connection with the preparation of this research paper: that candidates should come to speak to them on their own turf, under the auspices of the ethnic community organizations in which they feel comfortable.

Pei-te Lien and colleagues also note some differences in how Asian populations engage with the political process, being more likely to contact the media and other officials or to focus on solving community problems than to donate to campaigns—again with variations within the broad “Asian” category.43 While the variables that explain rates of participation for other groups (for example, socioeconomic factors, language skills, length of stay in the United States, etc.) are also important to consider in relation to Asians, those who study Asian Americans also point to contextual factors such as ethnic group concentration; thus, there is greater voter turnout in states with higher numbers of elected officials from ethnic groups (Hawaii, California).44 Jane Junn and colleagues note that for the Asian American electorate, the ethnic language media is an important source of information, although as mentioned above, they are contacted less by political parties than by other groups.45 These researchers also found that participation in home country politics does not deter involvement in politics in the United States, and that those who were involved in homeland politics are slightly more likely to vote than those who are not.

The impact of these transnational connections is also taken up by the authors who contributed to Christian Collet and Pei-te Lien’s edited volume on Asian American politics.46 The volume offers a very useful overview of the changing patterns of political participation by this population since the 1980s. While I have more to say below about the significance of transnational social fields to the civic and political engagement of immigrants, it is important to emphasize here that, as the twenty-first century unfolds, we are witnessing increased political engagement for both Asian and Latino populations in the United States (of naturalized citizens as well as their American-born children who are progressively becoming eligible to vote).


  • 32Jane Junn, Taeku Lee, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Janelle Wong, Asian Americans and the 2008 Election, National Asian American Survey, October 6, 2008.
  • 33See Pei-te Lien, “Ethnicity and Political Participation: A Comparison between Asian and Mexican Americans,” Political Behavior 16 (2) (1994): 237–264; Pei-te Lien, Christian Collet, Janelle Wong, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “Asian Pacific-American Public Opinion and Political Participation,” PS: Political Science and Politics 34 (3) (2001): 625–630; Pei-te Lien, M. Margaret Conway, and Janelle Wong, The Politics of Asian Americans: Diversity and Community (New York: Routledge, 2004); Wong, Democracy’s Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions; Janelle Wong, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn, Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and Their Political Identities (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011); and Tritia Toyota, Envisioning America: New Chinese Americans and the Politics of Belonging (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).
  • 34Lien, Collet, Wong, and Ramakrishnan, “Asian Pacific-American Public Opinion and Political Participation,” 625.
  • 35Civic Leadership USA, “2018 Asian American Voter Survey,” 2018.
  • 36Krogstad, Noe-Bustamante, and Flores, “Historic Highs in 2018 Voter Turnout Extended Across Racial and Ethnic Groups.”
  • 37Mythili Sampathkumar, “Midterms 2018: How Asian American voters are ‘coming of age’ this election cycle, especially in ‘red’ states,” The Independent, November 5, 2018.
  • 38David Byler, “Politicians Often Overlook Asian American Voters. They Shouldn’t Especially in 2020,” The Washington Post, July 10, 2019.
  • 39Adam Nagourney and Robert Gebeloff, “Cultural Shifts Sweep Away a California Bastion of Conservatism,” The New York Times, December 31, 2018, A1, A15.
  • 40Jun Xu, “Why Do Minorities Participate Less? The Effects of Immigration, Education and Electoral Process on Asian American Voter Registration and Turnout,” Social Science Research 34 (2005): 682–702.
  • 41Ibid., 697.
  • 42Caitlin Kim, “Why Asian Americans Don’t Vote,” New America Weekly, September 7, 2017.
  • 43Lien, Conway, and Wong, The Politics of Asian Americans: Diversity and Community.
  • 44Lien, Collet, Wong, and Ramakrishnan, “Asian Pacific-American Public Opinion and Political Participation,” 628.
  • 45Junn, Lee, Ramakrishnan, and Wong, Asian Americans and the 2008 Election.
  • 46Christian Collet and Pei-te Lien, eds., The Transnational Politics of Asian Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).