E.g., 06/15/2024
E.g., 06/15/2024
Understanding Immigrant Politics: Lessons from the U.S.

Understanding Immigrant Politics: Lessons from the U.S.

Every year, all around the world, millions of people are in movement, more or less permanently, to other countries. Whether as immigrants or as refugees, these people change the demographics of nations—more than one in ten Americans, for instance, is an immigrant, and more than one in five is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. The figures for most other industrialized nations approach, or surpass, those of the United States.

Despite these figures, there has been a striking absence, not only of any consensus on the description of contemporary immigrant settlement, but even of any sustained conversation among the practitioners of different approaches to immigrant settlement. For example, policy makers and scholars looking at immigration through an "ethnic" lens spend very little time looking at transnational networks and organizations, instead focusing on the processes of immigrant assimilation into receiving country societies. For their part, scholars and policy makers taking a transnational approach to immigration studies emphasize continued ties to immigrants' countries of origin but rarely acknowledge or explore the interaction of transnational processes with processes of immigrant incorporation into receiving countries. Finally, neither approach pays much attention to the low-key organizational and participatory life of immigrants on the margins of the societies of both their countries of origin and countries of residence, what might be called the "liminal" approach. While ostensibly addressing the same population, analyses and policy prescriptions drawn from these distinct approaches rarely acknowledge, much less address, alternative approaches to the phenomenon of contemporary immigration.

All three approaches—ethnic, transnational, and liminal—are examined here in one key arena—politics—among immigrants in the United States. A discussion follows of how the types of politics outlined by these three approaches are each likely to be persistent, and therefore to intersect, overlap, and compete. Lastly, the essay outlines some policy prescriptions that flow from these observations.

Ethnic Politics: Ties to the Receiving Country

Once in their new countries of residence, immigrants engage, albeit inconsistently, in politics—if by politics we mean collective mobilization around strategic interests, which might range from group identities to tangible assets.

In the United States, with immigration central to its history and self-identity, immigrant politics has often been equated with "ethnic politics." This approach emphasizes the role of immigrants as actors in American politics, particularly in formal American political institutions, exploring their experiences with such phenomena as registration, voting, electing candidates, and representation. Ethnic politics focuses on immigrants as citizens, albeit citizens whose attachments may be, foremost, to their own compatriots. For many Americans, the narrative of ethnic politics seems both straightforward and familiar: in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment, immigrants may initially rally in support of their own. However, with their social, economic, and political incorporation over time, this support becomes more symbolic than real—endorsing politicians who march in once-a-year parades or who have had their photos taken in immigrants' "home" countries. In this perspective, ethnic politics is simply seen as a stage in the process of immigrant incorporation. The increasingly symbolic role ethnicity plays over time for immigrants in American politics is seen as the very sign of their successful incorporation.

This "ethnic" approach has been complicated by the fact that since 1970, 85 percent of all immigrants to the United States have been from Asia and Latin America, and that since 1964 and 1975, respectively, these two groups have been covered as protected minorities under U.S. civil rights and voting rights laws. For those immigrants now meeting the definition of racial or linguistic minorities, their incorporation into American life is no longer seen simply as a tale of individual striving linked to a fading ethnic solidarity. Instead, their experience is compared to that of native-born whites, and their segregation, whether residential, occupational, or institutional, is seen against the backdrop of a history of racial exclusion. Nonetheless, despite, or even because of, the attention paid to the additional complications of race and racial preferences in the American political system, the ethnic approach to immigrant settlement and politics insists on a focus on immigrants' struggles and successes in an American context.

Transnational Politics: Ties to the Sending Country

The dominant narrative of ethnic politics has been challenged recently by studies that have highlighted the persistence of social networks, institutions, and ties that span borders and link immigrants to their countries of origin. Immigrants remit money, travel, maintain their interest in sending country affairs, keep up with media from their country of origin, and may take part in organizational life, politics, and social events linking the sending country with expatriates in the receiving country. It is pretty much taken as a given among immigration scholars that these transnational networks and practices are prevalent in the first generation. The impact of these ties on immigrants' decisions about settlement, citizenship acquisition, and the like is fairly evident.

However, the persistence of these ties into the second generation is in dispute. At least some of the children of immigrants maintain some knowledge of their parents' native language, travel back and forth to their parents' country of origin, and even send remittances back to an extended family—but the magnitude and frequency of these practices in the second generation is much diminished from their parents' generation. According to surveys of the second generation in both New York City and San Diego, large majorities of the children of immigrants are U.S. citizens, prefer English over their parents' language, have never sent remittances, and have rarely traveled to their parents' countries of origin. This seems to indicate that the children of immigrants, if not necessarily immigrants themselves, are successfully "Americanizing."

Despite the process of Americanization, there are good reasons to think that the significance of transnational practices might persist even into the second generation and beyond. First, while transnational political actors among immigrants may be in the minority, they may still be quite large in number. Even if only 10 percent of the 40 million or so immigrants in the U.S. dabble in the politics of their countries of origin, that is still quite a large number of people.

Second, while many immigrants and their children may never really engage in transnational politics, some may engage in it episodically, at some points in their lives—in college, for instance, or after retirement. Transnationalism in immigrant communities can also be triggered by crises in the country of origin: war, other forms of political instability, or famines and natural disasters.

Third, the influence of these transnational actors is likely magnified by immigrants' relative wealth and influence. Immigrants living in the U.S. can have a disproportionate effect on diaspora politics, just by virtue of having more resources to contribute than their compatriots in their countries of origin. Examples would include the relationship between the Irish and the Irish Republican Army, or American Jews and Israel. Even though by many indicators it is clear that immigrants are further incorporated into society over time and with each succeeding generation, there will be continued transnational engagement by some immigrants, and episodic engagement by many more.

The debate about transnationalism is not, as some conservative policy analysts have characterized it, about whether immigrants and their children "Americanize." Clearly they do. Rather the question is, what is "Americanization," and what does transnationalism mean within the context of Americanization?

Liminal Politics: The Politics of 'In-Between'

While a focus on ethnic politics emphasizes the incorporation of immigrants into American society, and transnational politics emphasizes continuing ties with the home country, there is a third possibility, which might be called "liminal" politics, literally of a politics of "in-between," describing a state of disengagement from the politics of either sending or receiving countries. Pundits of all political persuasions often see a correlation between the absence of sustained immigrant engagement in American politics and the presumption of their continued participation in their countries of origin. The reason, they say, we do not see immigrant participation in the United States, is that they must be engaged elsewhere, and this engagement elsewhere siphons away their energies so that they have neither the time nor inclination for politics in the United States. This fits in well with the transnational perspective outlined above.

But the fact is that immigrants are likely to stay away from formal politics in both their countries of origin and the United States. Immigrants are no more likely (and in fact, often less likely) to be involved in formal politics in their countries of origin than they are to be involved in the United States. For instance, the evidence indicates that given the opportunity to vote in home country elections, the overwhelming majority stays at home. Staying away from electoral politics in both countries is consistent with an overall policy of avoiding partisanship and controversy. Immigrants try not to pick sides, because doing so might jeopardize what many immigrants perceive as a precarious balance between their loyalties and ties to their countries of origin and country of residence.

Liminal politics might be seen as aggressively anti-political, rather than political, but this is only somewhat true. For the most part the "politics of in-between" is expressed most overtly in the space opened by events like parades and festivals, where immigrants can broadcast multiple (and at times seemingly conflicting) identities, without being forced to make choices among them. Parades and festivals, for instance, allow immigrants to simultaneously display signs of their attachments to their hometowns, their countries of origin, and to the United States, and to signal transnational, ethnic, and pan-ethnic ties all at once.

At times, however, when immigrant communities feel under threat, immigrant organizations can use their latent resources for social mobilization, resulting in interventions in the larger public sphere. Often these are triggered by specific issues—concerns about their children's schooling, the quality of life in their neighborhood, or perhaps even broader issues about the erosion of immigrants' rights and benefits. From the outside this immigrant political mobilization appears to be sporadic or episodic, but is in fact consistent within a framework of a politics of in-between, that is, of avoiding any rupture between their loyalties to their countries of origin and their country of residence.

Again, as with transnationalism, it might be tempting to dismiss immigrant politics as a transitional phenomenon. But there are two reasons why this may be mistaken. The first is that the organizations constructed by the first generation set the parameters for subsequent immigrant political mobilization, quite possibly with profound effects for the mobilization efforts of the second generation. But more importantly, the attitudes and behaviors of the first generation—in particular their disengagement from formal political institutions and practices such as voting, campaigning, and lobbying—may very well be passed on to their children. We do not know very much about immigrant political socialization, but there is the real possibility that the "in-betweenness" of the first generation is reflected in the subsequent electoral non-participation of the second and subsequent generations.


To fully appreciate the dynamics of immigrant politics, the historically dominant paradigm for understanding immigrant political incorporation—ethnic politics—is insufficient. While immigrant assimilation—whether reflected through the acquisition of English, the adoption of U.S. citizenship, home ownership, or intermarriage—is a reality, transnational ties are prevalent in the first generation. These ties are likely to persist into the second generation and beyond, even if transnational engagement is only episodic in nature. On the other hand, transnationalism by itself is unlikely to be the driving force in immigrant politics. It will always go hand in hand with some form of Americanization. However, liminal politics—immigrants' sense of being in-between and on the margins of both their sending and receiving societies—suggests that Americanization might well mean the continuation of immigrant marginalization in American politics.

The full realization of immigrants' role in American political life will come only with the naturalization of those yet to become citizens, the registration of those who are already citizens, and the participation of those who are registered. At every one of these hurdles of naturalization, registration, and turnout, immigrants and their children lag behind the population as a whole. For those concerned with the prospect that immigrants might linger at the margins of American politics for some time—perhaps for generations—these conclusions point to the need for policy changes that might encourage both naturalization and electoral participation.

One key change, given that transnational ties exist and are likely to persist, would be for U.S. naturalization policy to recognize—even if only out of sheer pragmatism—the existence of immigrants' plural affiliations. The limited evidence that exists seems to indicate that the recognition of these multiple affiliations in fact only increases immigrants' odds of adopting U.S. citizenship, and thus strengthens their ties to their country of residence. A policy recognizing immigrants' multiple affiliations might lead to outcomes uncomfortable to some (for instance, the possibility of participation in both sending country and receiving country elections). Once again, however, pragmatism should prevail: these practices are not likely to attract many participants (if past cases are any indication), and banning them is unlikely to end the most egregious examples of interference in other nations' politics (through donations to extremist groups, for instance).

A second key policy measure stems from the possibility that, given the points outlined above, immigrant marginalization in American politics will persist. Policy makers who wish to encourage the participation of immigrants in American electoral politics should look to 2007, when the Voting Rights Act and its amendments are up for re-approval by Congress. Extending provisions for multilingual balloting would encourage more immigrants to go to the polls and be active in other ways. Congress might even go further by providing federal assistance under the act for the naturalization and voter registration of new immigrants, similar to the assistance rendered to blacks registering for the first time in southern states in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.

If policymakers are truly concerned about immigrant incorporation into American society, these issues—and other possibilities as well, such as non-citizen voting, earned citizenship, streamlined naturalization, and civic education—should certainly be placed on the table.

Michael Jones-Correa can be contacted at [email protected].