The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants

The Second Generation

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Caroline B. Brettell
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

If naturalization is one of the most challenging barriers to political participation for the immigrant generation, what about the children of immigrants—the so-called second generation who are born U.S. citizens59 By the late 1990s, migration scholars began to turn their attention to this population, and particularly to the dimensions of their integration.60 However, only a small portion of this work has focused on issues of second-generation civic and political engagement, often linking these processes with issues of identity61 and exploring variations according to race, class, and/or ethnic background.62 A good deal of this research is based on data that are now a decade or more old and certainly should be updated to reflect the changing composition of the millennial generation who are now of voting age.

Some of the research focus on the civic engagement of the second generation explores the impact of participation in particular school-based or community-based youth organizations, reflecting broader and more generalized concerns about the impact of K-12 civic education programs. For example, drawing on an ethnographic study of a program for Vietnamese youth in Philadelphia, Rand Quinn and Chi Nguyen show how a particular organization (referred to as “Homeward Bound”) closes the civic empowerment gap by preparing these young people to navigate the political dynamics of their local communities and to work cooperatively and productively across different communities.63 Similarly, John Mollenkopf and colleagues found that for the second generation being “involved in institutions that tie the individual to the larger society around them promotes political engagement.”64

In a study of Asian American youth, Laura Wray-Lake and colleagues find that Asian American students who are stereotypically portrayed as too involved in academics to be civically and/or politically engaged are in fact highly engaged civically in a way that is often linked to what they are studying.65 Parissa Ballard and colleagues reveal that there are more similarities than differences in what motivates Asian and Latino youth across immigrant backgrounds to become involved in political and non-political volunteerism.66 They suggest that this may be because the developmental similarities in civic motivation are more powerful than the demographic differences. Context, including the educational context, seems to matter.

A similar question about variations in volunteerism (civic engagement) by race and ethnicity has also been explored by Hiromi Ishizawa using the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study.67 His results show that first- and second-generation Hispanic youth are less likely to volunteer than third or more generation Whites and that the differences are accounted for by lower family socioeconomic status, the degree of parents’ civic participation, involvement in extracurricular activities, and enrollment in postsecondary institutions. Interestingly, higher volunteerism is associated with having non-English-language speaking parents. And finally, there is an immigrant advantage for first-generation Hispanic youth and a second-generation advantage among Asian youth, suggesting that different dynamics are at play for each of these populations.

What is apparent examining this body of research is that there is significant variation in the second-generation population and that more work must be done to sort out important sociological and cultural differences behind rates of civic engagement. Few have examined how civic engagement may translate into or correlate with political engagement. What is undeniable, however, is the significance of this population as a “barometer for the future of democracy.”68 Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine point out that a spring 2006 national survey (conducted when major protests were being organized against anti-immigrant legislation in many cities across the United States) showed that 23 percent of immigrant youth and 18 percent of the children of immigrant parents indicated that they had been involved in a protest in the previous year as compared with the children of native-born parents, who reported a protest rate of just 10 percent.69 Mark Lopez and Karlo Marcelo, utilizing a 2006 Civic and Political Health National Survey, demonstrate that on most measures young immigrants report lower levels of civic engagement in comparison with natives.70 But many of the differences are eliminated after controlling for demographic factors. By contrast, the children of immigrant parents report levels of civic engagement that either match or exceed those of natives.

Mobilization around a cause is as important to the children of immigrants as it is to the native born—as seen by the engagement of young people around gun control after the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Based on research among immigrant youth in Miami, Florida, Alex Stepick and colleagues have observed that the children of immigrant backgrounds focus their civic engagement activities on helping other immigrants, something for which they can draw on their bilingual skills.71 Further, and like native minorities, these youth also become actively involved in politics in response to discrimination. Carola Suárez-Orozco and colleagues identify awareness of unfair treatment, along with social responsibility and the desire to create social change as three drivers for the engagement of Latino immigrant-origin young adults in the civic sphere. As a young Dominican woman who came to the United States at age thirteen indicated to these researchers, she is motivated by “Things that I care for. They’re . . . something personal to me in one way or another where I feel some sort of attachment. It is not an obligation but more like I want to do [these things] . . . [They make] me feel better. . . . It’s sort of my calling.”72 As Flanagan and Levine have observed,

Immigrant youth engage in a wide array of civic activities, working in faith-based groups and using their bilingual skills to assist fellow immigrants as translators and tutors. Comparisons of nationally representative studies of foreign-born, second-generation, and native-born seventh through twelfth graders reveal that new immigrants are just as likely as any of their contemporaries to embrace core American political values and to engage in volunteerism. Further, once socioeconomic differences are taken into account, immigrant youth are as likely, or almost as likely, as their native-born peers to be engaged in most conventional forms of civic participation.73


  • 59The term 1.5 generation refers to the children of immigrants who were born elsewhere but entered the United States at a young age; most “Dreamers” belong to this category.
  • 60See Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press; New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001); Rubén G. Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes, eds., Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America (Berkeley: University of California Press; New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001); Peggy Levitt and Mary C. Waters, The Changing Face of Home: The Transnational Lives of the Second Generation (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002); Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, and Mary C. Waters, eds., Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004); Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, Mary C. Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway, Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008); Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, Asian American Youth (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); C. Suárez-Orozco, M. G. Hernández, and S. Casanova, “‘It’s Sort of My Calling’: The Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility of Latino Immigrant-Origin Young Adults,” Research in Human Development 12 (1–2) (2015): 84–99; Hinda Seif, “The Civic Education and Engagement of Latina/o Youth: Challenging Boundaries and Creating Safe Spaces,” Paper Series on Latino Immigrant Civic Participation, no. 5, Woodrow Wilson Center, 2009; Richard Alba and Mary C. Waters, eds., The Next Generation: Immigrant Youth in a Comparative Perspective (New York: New York University Press, 2011); and Faith G. Nibbs and Caroline B. Brettell, eds., Identity and the Second Generation: How Children of Immigrants Find their Space (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2016).
  • 61Alex Stepick and Carol Dutton Stepick, “Becoming American, Constructing Ethnicity: Immigrant Youth and Civic Engagement,” Applied Developmental Science 6 (4) (2002): 246–257; and Lene Arnett Jensen, “Immigrants’ Cultural Identities as Sources of Civic Engagement,” Applied Developmental Science 12 (2) (2008): 74–83.
  • 62John Mollenkopf, Jennifer Holdaway, Philip Kasinitz, and Mary Waters, “Politics Among Young Adults in New York: The Immigrant Second Generation,” in Transforming Politics, Transforming America: The Political and Civic Incorporation of Immigrants in the United States, ed. Lee, Ramakrishnan, and Ramirez, 175–193.
  • 63Rand Quinn and Chi Nguyen, “Immigrant Youth Organizing as Civic Preparation,” American Educational Research Journal 54 (5) (2017): 972–1005.
  • 64Mollenkopf, Holdaway, Kasinitz, and Waters, “Politics Among Young Adults in New York: The Immigrant Second Generation,” 190.
  • 65Laura Wray-Lake, Julia Tang, and Christine Victorino, “Are They Political? Examining Asian American College Students’ Civic Engagement,” Asian American Journal of Psychology 8 (1) (2017): 31–42. See also Laura Wray-Lake, Wendy M. Rote, Taveesha Gupta, Erin Godfrey, and Selcuk Sirin, “Examining Correlates of Civic Engagement among Immigrant Adolescents in the United States,” Research in Human Development 12 (12) (2015): 10–27.
  • 66Parissa J. Ballard, Heather Malin, Tenelle J. Porter, Anne Colby, and William Damon, “Motivations for Civic Participation Among Diverse Youth: More Similarities than Differences,” Research in Human Development 12 (1–2) (2015): 63–83.
  • 67Hiromi Ishizawa, “Civic Participation through Volunteerism among Youth across Immigrant Generations,” Sociological Perspectives 58 (2) (2015): 264–285.
  • 68Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine, “Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood,” The Future of Children 20 (1) (2010): 159. A recent study on the “millennial generation”—see William Frey, The Millennial Generation: A Demographic Bridge to America’s Diverse Future (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2018)—reinforces this point about the “barometer of future democracy” by noting that this is the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Clearly immigration has contributed to this diversity. Among this group may be those of the 1.5 generation who have managed to become legal: either as dependents of parents who entered legally and have naturalized, or they have been able to gain legal status in other ways. For an analysis of immigrant youth and civic engagement, see Seif, “The Civic Education and Engagement of Latina/o Youth.”
  • 69Flanagan and Levine, “Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood,” 164; see also Pantoja, Menjívar, and Magaña, “The Spring Marches of 2006: Latinos, Immigration and Political Mobilization in the 21st Century.”
  • 70Mark Hugo Lopez and Karlo Barrios Marcelo, “The Civic Engagement of Immigrant Youth: New Evidence from the 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Survey,” Applied Development Science 12 (2) (2008): 66–73.
  • 71Alex Stepick, Carol Dutton Stepick, and Yvan Labissiere, “South Florida’s Immigrant Youth and Civic Engagement: Major Engagement, Minor Differences,” Applied Development Science 12 (2) (2008): 57–65.
  • 72Suárez-Orozco, Hernández, and Casanova, “‘It’s Sort of My Calling’: The Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility of Latino Immigrant-Origin Young Adults,” 90.
  • 73Flanagan and Levine, “Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood,” 164.