If you listen to Donald Trump, you’d think that undocumented immigrants were coming over the border to not only “take our jobs” but also to steal US elections. But while border hawks like Trump are wrong about the voting, they’re right about the potential influence of noncitizens on the body politic.
A study of the social dynamics of immigrant populations reveals how civic activism extends beyond casting the ballot in November. Contrary to the stereotype of immigrants idling around and sponging off benefits, political researchers James McCann and Michael Jones-Correa of Purdue and University of Pennsylvania argue that although noncitizens, greencard holders and the undocumented may lack the vote, they form a vital public voice on policy issues affecting not just migrants, but all people living with hardship.
The undocumented wield special influence as living testaments to a crisis, shaping the worldviews of family members who are eligible voters. The undocumented are also present in the political spheres of their churches, schools, and workplaces, and aid voter drives, valiantly defying political barriers.
Since most immigrants of any status have lived in the United States for over a decade, the researchers point out that non-citizens are today “part of how we think of the public, even if not necessarily part of the electorate.”
Actually, if immigrants were a voting bloc, according the study, published in the journal RSF, they would be model citizens. Previous analyses of noncitizen survey data during the 1990s and 2000s, which extrapolated from the experiences of immigrants who lacked voting rights but were exposed to other political activities, shows Latino immigrants’ participation mirrors that of other social groups, despite structural barriers. According to the Latino National Political Survey, for example: “6 percent reported signing a petition, 5 percent expressed political views symbolically by wearing a button, and 4 percent had written a politician.”
Latino survey data from 2006 reflects significant engagement among non-citizens at the grassroots level: “nearly 80 percent stated that they had participated formally or informally in collective initiatives to solve community problems.” Similar polling of Asian immigrants without voting rights revealed “nearly 20 percent worked to solve a community problem.” In recent years, immigration raids and detentions have set off mass mobilizations and direct actions, including rallies and sit-ins, as well as petitioning, lobbying politicians, allying with sister social movements, and making protest art. Undocumented immigrants have also driven the grassroots labor movement’s nascent organizing campaigns among low-wage workers, many of them exploited due to their precarious legal status.