The Riddle of Immigrant Voting

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Georgina Arcienegas holds a sign in support of Latino voters during a protest in Doral, Florida, on Tuesday, January 12, 2016.

Immigration is one of the defining issues of the 2016 election, but does that mean it will bring out immigrants to the polls? Naturalized Americans, who hail disproportionately from Latin America and Asia, certainly have the potential to put Hillary Clinton over the top: In the 2012 presidential contest, more than 70 percent of both Latinos and Asians voted for President Obama. This year, however, polls show that despite the threat posed to immigrant communities by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, Clinton is doing no better against Trump—and perhaps worse—than Obama did against Mitt Romney four years ago. Similarly, there are no clear indications that Latino and Asian turnout will grow more than incrementally from their lackluster levels of 2012.

A remarkable study released last week by Manuel Pastor, Justin Scoggins, and Magaly N. Lopez of the University of Southern California’s Center for Immigrant Integration documents the number of newly-naturalized minorities in key swing states, and shows that the longer naturalized citizens have been in the country, the likelier they are to register to vote. In the last four presidential elections, roughly 70 percent of naturalized Americans who’d arrived more than 30 years before were registered to vote. Those who’d arrived between 20 and 30 years previously were registered at roughly a 60 percent rate, while only about half of those who’d come just in the preceding 20 years were registered—though the rate at which these were registered crept steadily upward from the 2000 election to the 2012 contest.

One way to look at these numbers is that, as with the rest of the electorate, the share of naturalized Americans who register and vote rises as they grow older. Another take on the data is that immigrants tend to vote more as they become more at home in America, as the communal insularity and language barriers that are common to immigrant communities grow less intense the longer they live here.

But there’s another factor, beyond the scope of the USC survey, which shapes the level of immigrant participation in U.S. politics: the degree to which established political institutions work at bringing immigrant communities into American political life. The gold standard for immigrant integration was set by the political machines of 19th-century Eastern Seaboard cities, most notably Tammany Hall, New York’s Democratic Party organization. Tammany’s ward heelers—many of them Irish immigrants themselves—met the thousands of newer Irish immigrants as they debarked on New York’s docks or at Castle Garden (the facility that preceded Ellis Island). They walked their neighborhoods, greeted newcomers, and in some cases helped find them jobs (one reason why the city’s police and fire-fighting force were heavily Irish). In the absence of laws regulating immigration or naturalization, they sped the immigrants through the citizenship process and turned them out to vote for Tammany’s standard bearers.

Tammany and its kindred organizations in immigrant-heavy cities would never win good government awards, but their efforts were a main reason why voter participation—in an electorate restricted to white males—reached heights in the late 19th century that the nation hasn’t come close to since. Later immigrant groups from other countries didn’t receive the full Tammany treatment (in part because Irish-led machines felt most comfortable helping their fellow Irishmen and most confident they could count on their votes). The Slavic and Polish Eastern European immigrants who came later, particularly those who worked in mining communities and smaller steel towns, had classically low rates of voter registration and participation until the election of 1936.

Again, it was a set of distinct, established institutions that reached out to mobilize them: In this case, the thousands of organizers for the newly-formed industrial unions of the CIO. As Tammany had offered employment to the Irish, so the CIO built its credibility by winning union contracts and higher wages in the mines and mills where the Eastern European immigrants worked. Through the organizers’ efforts, the number of voters in the ’36 election was markedly higher than the number in ‘32, moving Pennsylvania into the Democratic column for the first time since the Civil War, and bringing millions of new voters—many of whom had been in the U.S. for decades—to the polls in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and all the cities of the industrial Midwest.

Democrats today who worry about the low voter participation rates of Latino and Asians, then, need to grasp the lesson that Tammany and the CIO should teach us: Demography may be destiny, but it always needs a push. The experience of integrating into a new country—particularly one with major cultural differences from the place the immigrants left—is generally slow and arduous. Integrating into the new country’s political world is likely to take several decades unless players in that world make themselves a daily, familiar, and helpful presence in immigrants’ communities and lives.

The one state whose political order has been completely transformed by the Latino and Asian immigration of the past 30 years is, of course, California. The onetime home of the Goldwater revolution, the state that gave us both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, today is the bluest of blue states—indeed, the only large state in the nation where Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office (indeed, every statewide office). That’s partly because California is a majority minority state, where the largest ethic group (39 percent of the state’s population) is Latinos. But numbers never tell the whole story. Texas is also 39 percent Latino, but Texas is as red as California is blue.

The difference—as was the case with Tammany and the Irish and the CIO and Eastern Europeans—is that an established institution realized it was in its interest to bring California’s huge immigrant population into the state’s political system. That institution was the labor movement, which in Los Angeles was led by a political genius, Miguel Contreras, who took the helm at the LA County AFL-CIO—a group of more than 300 local unions—in 1996. The conventional wisdom for the preceding two decades had been that Los Angeles was too big, too spread out, for anyone to send out precinct walkers. But Contreras sent out thousands of them into Latino neighborhoods, drawn disproportionately from locals comprised of Spanish-speaking immigrants (above all, the janitors and the hotel workers).

In 1994, state Republicans had begun to wage their own war on immigrants by backing Proposition 187, which would have denied all public services to the undocumented, and Contreras was determined that by bringing new Latino voters to the polls, labor would make the Republicans pay a price for their immigrant-bashing folly. And pay they did: By the turn of the century, the formerly Republican congressional and legislative districts that ringed LA County had all flipped to Democratic representation, in the process moving California firmly into the Democratic column and creating public policies—most recently, a statewide $15 minimum wage—beneficial to immigrants anchored in the low-wage economy.

In Texas, by contrast, the labor movement played no comparable role in the Latino community, largely because, as is not the case in California, the labor movement in Texas (a right-to-work state) barely exists. In recent years, some progressive foundations have taken up the task, but theirs remains a distinctly uphill struggle.

Today, the major efforts to bring Latino immigrants into the political process are largely undertaken or funded by labor—the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union in particular. (The California AFL-CIO has also had success boosting Asian-American turnout and Democratic voting in that state.) But to succeed on the scale that would secure lasting Democratic majorities, such efforts really need the kind of regular presence that the ethnic urban machines and industrial unions had within the immigrant communities of their times. After decades of debilitating assaults, labor today is simply too small to assert that kind of ongoing presence, and no other group has the resources or credibility to plausibly take its place. Which is a major reason why Latinos and Asians, despite the threat that Donald Trump poses to them, aren’t coming forth in sufficient numbers to make this year’s election the Democratic landslide it should be.    

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