The Political and Civic Engagement of Immigrants

Conclusion: Solutions and Best Practices

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Caroline B. Brettell
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

In an article written for the Brookings Institution, Steven Schier notes that in the 1890s, within a few weeks of disembarking from ships at Ellis Island, immigrants often received a visit from a Tammany Hall ward heeler or they were introduced to other politicians at the local precinct hall. “Long before many of those newcomers fully understood what it was to be American, they knew quite well what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican.”120 He suggests that the immigrants of today, by contrast, are closer to the fringes of American politics and voter turnout, which a century ago was more than 80 percent in presidential elections and 70 percent in off-year congressional elections. “The centripetal forces drawing immigrants into electoral politics in 1900 have been succeeded,” Schier suggests, “by a set of strong and persistent centrifugal forces that discourage the full electoral participation and political assimilation that earlier generations of immigrants enjoyed.”121 He argues that there are three changes that have characterized American politics that have led to the exclusion of immigrants: the diminishing role of political parties, the emergence of new forms of campaigning, and, oddly enough, efforts to get more minorities involved in government (through, for example, the creation of noncompetitive electoral districts, which discourages outreach).

Schier’s solution to this problem is twofold. He calls for incentives that will induce parties, candidates, and interest groups to seek every possible voter through mechanisms such as automatic national voter registration. He also calls for efforts to encourage more voting and to simplify ballots (including shortening them).

Other ideas about the political and civic engagement of immigrant newcomers and of new citizens have emerged from the discussion in this paper as well as from the larger body of materials assembled and reviewed by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship as it worked toward formulating its final recommendations. I list several of them here by way of a conclusion.

  • Approach or reach out to immigrant communities through their own institutions—such as ethnic media, voluntary organizations, community events, etc. The ethnic media can provide greater access to election materials and information. And through these organizations people can be organized or mobilized around issues that not only provide training in civic skills of how to get things done and create change, but also how to interact with the structures of government: local, statewide, and national.
  • Take advantage of public libraries and bridging civic spaces122 as places not only to reach unengaged populations but also to bring people of diverse backgrounds together and to educate populations about the process of naturalization, voter registration, how to learn about candidates, etc. Every element of the voting process needs to be explained. This might also be included in citizenship classes. As Jamie Johnston and Ragnar Audunson have argued, based on research in Norway, “conversation-based programming in public libraries shows great potential for supporting immigrants’ political integration and bringing their voices into the public sphere by fostering linguistic competence, expanding social networks, promoting information exchange, and providing space for ‘messy conversation.’”123
  • Confront the language barriers and other barriers (including those related to the process of naturalization) that immigrants, particularly first-generation immigrants, face. As Waters and Pineau observe, the barriers to and inequalities in civic and political integration can be mitigated by partnerships among the voluntary sector, civil society, community-based organizations, the business sector, and government.124
  • More cities should establish an Office of Welcoming Communities that focuses not just on economic integration, but also on social and political integration and that serves as a meeting place and umbrella framework for community-level organization.125 Additionally, more studies of the Civic Health of Cities should be carried out and plans of action developed.126 And more individuals from these communities, particularly the second-generation, should be encouraged to run for office.127

Above all, there need to be mechanisms to capture what Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee identified almost a decade ago as the “growing clout” of racial minorities, including both naturalized citizens and the children of immigrants.128 These authors argue that these minorities do not naturally gravitate to partisanship and that they must be cultivated in myriad ways. This cultivation, I would argue, must take place on their own turf, in spaces where they feel comfortable. Efforts of inclusion and incorporation must replace those of exclusion and marginalization if we are to reinvigorate our democracy and create a civil society that is active and engaged.