Mexican Migrant Civic Participation in the United States
Published on: Aug 15, 2006

Jonathan Fox is professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing a book manuscript entitled Accountability Politics: Voice and Power in Rural Mexico. This essay draws from a report on a recent conference called "Invisible No More" (see endnote).

In the spring of 2006, more than three million immigrants—most of them originally from Mexico—marched through the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Detroit, Denver, Dallas, and dozens of other U.S. cities to protest peacefully for a comprehensive reform that would legalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.1 Though few are voters, and even fewer in swing districts, migrants’ remarkably disciplined, law-abiding collective actions sent a message—“we are workers and neighbors, not criminals”—that resonated on Capitol Hill. The protests caught almost all observers by surprise, including many in immigrant communities. Mexican migrants, who formed a majority of participants in most of the cities, moved from being subjects of policy reform to having a voice in the debate on the reform. Never before had they taken such a visible role in a national U.S. policy discussion.

The decision by so many immigrant workers, housewives, students, farmworkers, both seniors and children, to come together to pursue a right to full membership in U.S. society suggests a major turning point in what has been the slow but steady construction of a shared pan-Latino immigrant collective identity in the United States. “Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” was one of the most popular slogans in these series of protests in a short two-month period.

The beginning of this social movement has marked a new era where many Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans or Dominicans, each closely identified with their nation of origin, are also increasingly accepting the U.S. labels Latino or Hispanic. Yet in order to understand the social foundations of this broad new upsurge in Latino immigrant participation, it is also useful to address the dynamics that are specific to those who came from Mexico. It is critical to understand how and why they choose to engage with public life in the United States.

This huge wave of civic engagement reveals a process that has been taking place often silently but consistently: the emergence of Mexican migrants as actors in American civic and political life. Far from the image of Mexican migrants as disengaged and insular, they have long been active in public life. They have done so by creating new migrant-led organizations, such as hometown associations, workers’ organizations and community media, as well as by joining existing U.S. organizations, such as community associations, churches, schools, unions, business associations, and civil rights organizations. In the process, they are also transforming these U.S. institutions, as so many other immigrant groups have done throughout American history.

Many Mexican migrants not only contribute to civic and political endeavors in U.S. society, but also remain simultaneously engaged as part of a cross-border Mexican society. Rather than producing a contradiction of divided loyalties, these dual commitments often tend to be mutually reinforcing. Recent research on Mexican migrant organizations indicates that efforts to help their hometowns in Mexico often leads to increasingly strategic engagement with civic life in their new hometowns in the United States.

There are over 600 registered hometown associations formed by Mexican migrants in cities and towns throughout the United States, with an especially notable presence in Chicago and Los Angeles. Many of these associations have formed federations made up of people from the same state in Mexico, as well as emerging confederations that in turn bring together different federations in U.S. metropolitan areas. These organizations play a significant role in helping hometowns in Mexico through encouraging community investment of collective remittances and pushing for more government support through matching funds. The larger federations have developed an increasing capacity to hold Mexican public officials accountable for the use of funds that are sent to Mexico to assist in infrastructure and productive projects in their towns of origin.

In addition, many of these hometown associations, federations, and confederations are becoming important participants in U.S. civic life. Most of these organizations started out focused exclusively on aid to their home communities in Mexico, but over time many developed programs for families and communities in the United States. They have thus become important arenas for migrants to learn the skills that allow them to engage with U.S. society and in many cases they have become active participants in city and state policy discussions that affect migrant communities. Migrants who participate in these associations often claim membership simultaneously in both Mexican and U.S. societies, what we call “civic binationality,” with their initial engagement with hometowns abroad aiding in their transition to active engagement with U.S. society. Some organizations, such as the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), actually maintain binational membership structures that allow for simultaneous engagement in both Mexican and U.S. societies.

U.S. Latino civil society, including both public interest groups and community-based organizations, offers a major pathway for immigrant incorporation into U.S. society. Traditional Latino organizations and Mexican migrant organizations often overlap in their issues and sometimes even membership, though they often have very different organizational structures, access to resources, as well as different views on whether to pursue a binational or primarily U.S.-focused agenda. While traditional Latino organizations tend to focus on civil rights in the U.S. and questions of equal access to healthcare and education, migrant organizations tend to focus on binational issues and on  service access issues that specifically affect immigrants. U.S. Latino leaders are among the U.S. constituencies most strongly committed to promoting immigrant incorporation, though they differ over whether migrants’ binational perspectives are win-win or win-lose from the point of view of eventual integration into U.S. society. Nonetheless, the gap between these agendas is narrowing as Mexican migrant organizations become increasingly involved in U.S.-based agendas and Latino organizations increasingly embrace concerns of the growing number of U.S. Latinos who are migrants. Our November 2005 Woodrow Wilson Center seminar found that both sets of leaders are “in transition” regarding these issues, creating new opportunities for dialogue and synergy. For another example, the July 2006 national conference of the National Council of La Raza involved an unprecedented degree of outreach to immigrants, including widespread interest in citizenship promotion and Spanish-language workshops.