Democracy's Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions / Edition 1

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Given the massive demographic changes in the United States during the past few decades, understanding the place of immigrants in the public sphere has never been more critical. Democracy's Promise examines both the challenges and opportunities posed to American civic institutions by the presence of increasing numbers of immigrants. Author Janelle Wong argues that the low levels of political participation among contemporary immigrants are not due to apathy or preoccupation with their homeland, but to the inability of American political parties and advocacy organizations to mobilize immigrant voters. Wong's rich study of Chinese and Mexican immigrants in New York and Los Angeles complements traditional studies of political behavior and civic institutions while offering a nuanced examination of immigrants' political activity.

Democracy's Promise will appeal to a broad spectrum of social scientists and ethnic studies scholars who study or teach immigration, racial and ethnic politics, political participation, civic engagement, and American political institutions. In addition, it will appeal to community organizers and party activists who are interested in issues of race and ethnicity, immigration, political participation, and political mobilization.

Janelle Wong is Assistant Professor of Political Science and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

"As political parties (perhaps) decline in the United States, as civic organizations (perhaps) move away from direct participatory politics, and as the number of immigrants certainly increases--what will link new Americans to the political realm? Janelle Wong answers this important question clearly, with elegance, nuance, rich description, and galvanizing provocativeness. Her evidence is compelling and her sense of urgency about the need for parties to look beyond short-term interests even more so."
--Jennifer L. Hochschild, Harvard University

"Wong draws on the Latino and Asian immigrant experience, with specific examples from the Chinese and Mexican communities of New York and Los Angeles, to show how the political parties have largely failed to organize these groups and why labor unions and immigrant advocacy organizations have stepped in to take their place. Far from 'disuniting' America, she clearly shows that bringing these groups into the political fray is central to the project of renewing American democracy."
--John Mollenkopf, CUNY Graduate Center

"A scathing critique of the role of parties in the mobilization of new immigrants and an invaluable analysis of alternative pathways of mobilization through community organizations."
--Michael Jones-Correa, Cornell University

"By employing multiple empirical methods, including in-depth interviews and sophisticated survey analyses, Janelle Wong provides a compelling account of the political activities and allegiances of America's Asian and Latino immigrants that challenges much conventional wisdom. Often the political parties are failing to reach out to these groups, and often immigrants remain concerned about their home countries; but they are nonetheless increasingly active in American politics, in ways that may do much to shape the course of American political development in the 21st century. Democracy's Promise is a major contribution to our understanding of this crucial dimension of American politics."
--Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania

"Democracy's Promise challenges political parties to reexamine their priorities for mobilizing new voters, and identifies the critical role civic institutions play in invigorating participation among immigrant citizens. Wong's analysis is at once precise and expansive; illuminating the contours of Latino and Asian American political incorporation and provoking thoughtful debate on inclusion in democratic theory."
--Jane Junn, Rutgers University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472069132
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2006
  • Series: The Politics of Race and Ethnicity Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Democracy's Promise
Immigrants & American Civic Institutions

By Janelle S. Wong
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2006

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09913-9

Chapter One

Immigrants & American Civic Institutions

Each week during the fall of 1999, immigrant Chinese garment and restaurant workers in New York City demonstrated outside the New York State Workers' Compensation Board. Although most had few economic resources and most lacked English language skills and citizenship, they went with petitions and signs to demand that the board expedite payments and accept accountability for worker safety. Around the same time in Los Angeles, immigrant Mexican day laborers formed an independent workers' association and began participating in political theater groups as part of an effort to demand fair wages. In late September 2003, nearly a thousand immigrants and their supporters from around the country headed for Washington, D.C., as part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, modeled after the freedom rides conducted as part of the 1960s civil rights movement. The immigrant freedom riders traveled to the nation's capital to demand legalization for undocumented workers, a more efficient and fair naturalization process, policy reforms to promote the reunification of families separated by migration, and greater civil rights and civil liberties protections for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The ride culminated in a rally and festival that drew more than one hundred thousand people and included a national congressional lobbying effort.

These examples of political activism stand in sharp contrast to accounts about the apathy and disengagement of contemporary U.S. immigrants. As a group, these immigrants exhibit low rates of political participation compared to the general population. However, in the late 1990s, I noticed that some immigrants were taking part in political activities, and I began to wonder if the statistics that were frequently reported as evidence of immigrants' reluctance to participate politically really told the whole story. Strikingly, those who were organizing and attending protest events were, according to conventional theories of political participation, among the least likely to be politically active-immigrants lacking citizenship or legal residency, with limited English skills, and living on poverty wages. Why would immigrants stuck in some of the country's lowest-paying jobs and struggling to put food on the table take time out of their busy days to attend a rally, go to a march, or lobby Congress?

That question was further animated by interviews I conducted with Chinese and Mexican immigrants and community leaders in New York City and Los Angeles during 1999 and 2000. When I asked about their communities and why they had or had not become involved in U.S. politics, two types of responses stood out. To the question of whether she felt that she was a part of the American political system, a Chinese immigrant woman replied, "The two big political organizations here, Republican and Democrat, mainly just care about white people. Percent of voters, minority, don't carry weight so [they are the] first group to be sacrificed. If all minorities vote, greater percent of voting power. Otherwise, we will continue to be ignored. If we don't vote, we will remain insignificant." Asked about opportunities for participation in the United States, another Chinese immigrant woman paused for a moment and then said, "I guess I only participate in the church. I'm never interested in politics, only if the church says something."

These statements reflect two common claims among the immigrants I interviewed. On the one hand, they often observed that the two major political parties seem to have no real interest in or involvement with immigrants. On the other hand, interviewees remarked that groups that do community-based work-labor organizations, workers' centers, advocacy and social service organizations, ethnic voluntary associations, and religious institutions-involve immigrants in political activities.

Civic Institutions & Immigrant Political Mobilization

This book focuses on the role that American civic institutions play in mobilizing immigrants. My field research led me to some conclusions that challenge the assumption that immigrants' failure to participate more actively in politics is rooted in their shortcomings or attitudes. I concluded that the low levels of political participation among contemporary minority immigrants do not result from individual apathy, lack of assimilation, or even a preoccupation with the homeland, as some popular and scholarly accounts suggest. Instead, the research indicates that American civic institutions' level of involvement with an immigrant community affects the level of political participation by members of that community. Institutions are not neutral actors in the process of immigrant mobilization, and their historical and political contexts, including incentives and the racial attitudes of the American public and elites, influence who gets to participate in the U.S. political system. The incorporation of immigrants into the political system poses challenges and offers opportunities to American civic institutions-including political parties, labor organizations, workers' centers, advocacy and social service organizations, ethnic voluntary associations, and religious institutions. This book challenges institutions to do more in terms of fulfilling the democratic ideal of full participation and inclusion for all citizens and points to how that could be accomplished.

Shifts in the American institutional landscape have affected immigrant political participation and mobilization in specific ways. In the past, waves of immigrants from Europe were at the heart of U.S. politics: "Nineteenth-century immigrants arrived to find important political groups eager to satisfy their material needs. Political party organizations, especially the many urban political machines, needed immigrants' votes and did their best to get them" (Schier 2002, 16). In contrast to earlier immigrants, those of today, who hail mostly from Asia and Latin America, find themselves on the periphery of the American political system. Fundamental differences in how parties mobilize people to participate in American politics partly account for this change. Local political machines and party organizations formerly exhibited a consistent and committed interest in political mobilization at the neighborhood level but are no longer a vital presence in U.S. communities generally and in immigrant communities in particular. Those efforts have been replaced by the centralization of campaigns in the Republican and Democratic national headquarters, where technicalization, in the form of direct marketing and mass media campaigns, has become the norm. Unless the mainstream political parties modify the mobilization strategies that they perfected at the end of the 1990s, other civic organizations may become the most viable institutions for encouraging immigrant involvement in American politics.

In the absence of strong, local-level party activity, the influence of community organizations may be even greater than had previously been the case. This book examines the role of labor organizations, workers' centers, advocacy and social service organizations, ethnic voluntary associations, and religious institutions in immigrant communities' mobilization and participation. By providing immigrants with opportunities to participate in both electoral and nonelectoral political activities, these organizations form an institutional bridge between immigrant communities and the larger political system.

America's Shifting Demographics

Although the shift in the institutional landscape constitutes a significant factor in the process of political mobilization, it pales in comparison to the shift in the U.S. demographic landscape. America is a nation of immigrants, but today, people from all over the world are entering the country in numbers not seen since the great waves of immigration from Europe of the past century. In 2000, approximately 28 million immigrants resided in the United States, about 10 percent of the total U.S. population-the highest percentage since the 1930s. Today, more than one out of every five people living in the United States is an immigrant or the child of immigrants. Because of their immense demographic force, immigrants profoundly affect the nation's institutions and communities.

Latinos and Asian Americans are the two largest and fastest-growing U.S. immigrant populations. Immigration, not the birthrate among those already living in the United States, is the primary factor driving population growth for both groups. In 2002, Asian American and Latino immigrants accounted for more than 75 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population. Approximately one in every four immigrants is Asian American, and one in every two is Latino. The Asian American population grew from 7 million in 1990 to more than 10 million in 2000, more than 60 percent of them immigrants. Although Asian Americans make up only about 5 percent of the U.S. population, in some regions they represent a much larger proportion. Similarly, the U.S. Latino population grew from 22 million in 1990 to more than 35 million in 2000, and almost 40 percent are immigrants. Latinos make up more than 12 percent of the current U.S. population, and, as is the case for Asian Americans, that proportion is much higher in some regions. In contrast, in 2000, fewer than 4 percent of non-Latino whites and 7 percent of blacks were foreign-born (Schmidley 2001).

Given these massive demographic changes, understanding the place of immigrants in the U.S. civic sphere has never been more critical. Not only is the number of immigrants growing, but they and their children are also becoming a larger segment of the political system. Immigrants constitute about 13 percent of the U.S. voting-age population, and their potential political influence is magnified by their concentration in California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, all states that command a large number of electoral college votes (Mollenkopf, Olson, and Ross 2001). The political mobilization of this group has the potential to alter the shape of the future American political system.

Despite the tremendous growth in the Latino and Asian American populations, their demographic power is not reflected in their political involvement. These groups are characterized by low rates of voting participation, and recent Latino and Asian American immigrants are even less likely to vote than are their native-born counterparts (Ong and Nakanishi 1996; DeSipio 1996; Cho 1999; Ramakrishnan 2005). Among voting age citizens, only 52 percent of Asian Americans and 58 percent of Latinos reported that they were registered to vote in 2004, compared to 69 percent of blacks and 75 percent of whites (U.S. Census Bureau 2005). Just 45 percent of Asian American and 47 percent of Latino adult citizens report voting in 2004, compared to 60 percent of black and 67 percent of white adult citizens. Thus, even when citizenship status is taken into account, these groups continue to register and vote at lower rates than blacks or whites (Schmidley 2001; Lien 2001; Leighley 2001; Jamieson, Shin, and Day 2002; Ramakrishnan 2005).

Low rates of voting participation partly explain why parties have been slow to turn their attention toward Asian American and Latino immigrants. There are few incentives in the U.S. political system encouraging parties to target low-propensity voters. Parties tend to devote their energies toward mobilizing the most likely voters in order to achieve the most "bang for the buck." Whether because of assumptions about immigrant apathy or because parties rarely focus beyond the next election, Asian Americans and Latinos-and particularly the immigrant members of those groups-receive less attention than the general population. Yet the parties' reluctance to mobilize these groups ignores several key points. Research has shown that with the passage of time, today's immigrants will become tomorrow's citizens and voters (Ong and Nakanishi 1996; Mogelonsky 1997; Myers, Pitkin, and Park 2005). In so doing, America's mainstream political parties are missing an opportunity to win these people over as constituents and as a base. More broadly, the parties are relinquishing a responsibility to shape the political socialization of these groups. Their focus on voting trends also turns a blind eye to nonvoting forms of political activity. Involvement in those sorts of activities can serve as a mechanism for political socialization and engagement, both for noncitizens, who cannot vote, and for newer citizens, who may hesitate to turn out to vote. These activities rarely have direct electoral outcomes, but they can form the bedrock for actions that will have those outcomes. Significantly, nonvoting activities can be organized and led by groups that have only tenuous connections (or no connection whatsoever) to American political parties.

The Nature of Democracy & the Role of Institutions in Immigrant Political Participation

The number of immigrants living in the United States today is not the only reason that we must pay attention to immigrant political participation. Political theorists since Alexis de Tocqueville have claimed that involvement in civic life provides the foundation for a strong democracy. Carole Pateman (1970), among others, asserts that civic engagement fosters the skills and attitudes necessary for the democratic process and facilitates the acceptance of collective decisions. Participation in politics in particular is the mechanism by which citizens influence their government. Through participation, citizens communicate their needs, interests, and preferences; participation can take many forms in addition to voting, including protesting, marching, signing petitions, or working for change in community groups (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). In addition, even when it is not explicitly political, civic engagement helps people to communicate and organize more effectively, which can further strengthen democracy (Pateman 1970).

Numerous political scientists have recognized the importance of institutions for participatory democracy. Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady note that "social institutions play a major role in stimulating citizens to take part in politics by cultivating psychological engagement in politics and by serving as the locus of recruitment to activity" (1995, 6). In his case study of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas, Mark Warren demonstrates that the organization fosters social connections and engagement in existing community institutions-that is, churches-to create an important link between community members living in poor areas and the larger political system. He argues that "the foundation for people's development as members of society and as democratic citizens lies in local communities." In particular, "It is the institutions of local community life, schools, churches, and less formal interactions that integrate people into democratic society" (2001, 22).

Robert Putnam's social-capital perspective on civic engagement also emphasizes the importance of institutions. Social capital consists of "connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them" (2000, 19). The forging of these connections can lead to greater economic mobility and even greater health and happiness. In large part, these social networks are fostered in civic institutions, which have many benefits for a democracy. They help individuals to make collective demands on government by providing a place for the generation and exchange of information and ideas. "When people associate in neighborhood groups, PTAs, political parties or even national advocacy groups, their individual and otherwise quiet voices multiple and are amplified" (338). Civic institutions reinforce democratic habits by giving individuals an opportunity to learn to run meetings, speak in public, organize projects, and debate public issues (339). Community organizations constitute places where immigrants can build democratic skills.

Robert Dahl (1998) suggests that democracy rests on the assumption that people are equally represented, and that assumption is also implicit in Putnam's vision of a stable, healthy democracy. No person or group should be treated as intrinsically privileged vis-à-vis other people or groups, and there should be parity in participation and representation (Dahl 1998). In reality, lack of parity in participation rates characterizes the country's various groups. Immigrants, especially those from Asia and Latin America, often find themselves on the periphery of the American political system, especially in terms of political participation (Ramakrishan 2005).


Excerpted from Democracy's Promise by Janelle S. Wong
Copyright © 2006 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Immigrants & American civic institutions 1
2 Mexican & Chinese immigrants in two cities 17
3 Institutional mobilization in an era of local party decline 51
4 The role of community organizations in immigrant political mobilization 89
5 Multiple immigrant identities & community organizations 119
6 Mobilization of Latinos & Asian Americans : evidence from survey data 141
7 Revitalizing civic institutions in immigrant communities : long-term strategies 153
8 Institutional mobilization in a transnational context 177
9 Conclusion : American civic institutions & immigrant mobilization at the dawn of the twenty-first century 197
App Methodology and data sources 213
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