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

Mexican migrants have also become increasingly influential members and leaders of traditional U.S. civic organizations as well, and these have served as important vehicles for migrants to become active members of U.S. society. Religious communities, both Catholic and Protestant, have played particularly important roles in creating channels for migrants to become engaged with issues in their U.S. congregations. Indeed, a large part of the growth of both the Catholic and evangelical Christian churches has come from Latin American immigrants. Some faith-based migrant membership organizations, such as the Asociación Tepeyac in New York, specifically see their role as building the social and political engagement of migrants to give them a voice in U.S. society while they continue to engage with their country of origin. These communities appropriate symbols and patterns of worship from migrants’ hometowns in Mexico but also address issues that migrants face in the United States.

Worker organizations have become another key arena for migrants’ civic engagement, in defense of their labor rights. Mexican migrant workers express a similar level of interest in unions to others in the United States despite most migrants’ lack of prior experience with representative unions in Mexico. Latin American immigrants have been central to most recent successful efforts to unionize private sector workers. Many migrants work in largely non-unionized industries, especially agriculture, construction and services, and here the emergence of worker support centers and other non-union forms of organization has proved particularly important. For immigrant farmworkers, who are often geographically and socially isolated, outreach to U.S. public opinion has often involved consumer boycotts, usually involving alliances with religious communities and university students—as in the case of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ recent successful campaign against Taco Bell. When thinking about migrants as workers, one could reframe the spring 2006 events and note that they constituted the largest mass mobilization of workers of any kind in the history of the United States.

Spanish-language media also play a decisive role both in sharing information among migrants and creating pathways to engagement in U.S. society. There are three major national television networks that broadcast in Spanish along with dozens of local stations and cable channels, over three hundred radio stations, and over seven hundred newspapers. These media help address issues that matter particularly to migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America in a way that neither English-language nor home country media do (although migrants do use both of these extensively as well). The immigrant rights protests that took place in the spring of 2006 in cities throughout the United States showed the capacity of Spanish-language media to help mobilize millions of people. In many cities, radio hosts—many of whom engaged with civic issues for the first time—played a central role at generating mass interest among migrants in participating in these protests. In other cases, these media also provide information on voting, health campaigns, and issues in the educational system, among many other matters of concern to migrants. Some public media, such as Radio Bilingue, were specifically created to serve as an information source for migrants to share and address their concerns, and even mainstream Spanish-language media leaders tend to see this as part of their mission.

Despite extensive gains among Mexican migrants in civic engagement, their electoral participation in the U.S. remains very low compared to their overall numbers. The large number of undocumented migrants—perhaps half of all Mexican migrants—is only part of the reason. Even among those who are permanent residents and are eligible for citizenship, Mexican migrants naturalize at lower rates than that of immigrants of most other national origins. Low average levels of formal education appear to be key, but considering that 2.4 million Mexican legal permanent residents were eligible for citizenship in 2003, according to Department of Homeland Security data, remarkably little research on this issue has been carried out. We need to understand more about how immigrants make citizenship decisions, and whether Mexican permanent residents may face hidden barriers in the official naturalization process. For those who do become citizens, voter turnout rates tend to follow broader U.S. patterns in which lower levels of formal education and income are associated with lower turnout rates. Nevertheless, both citizen and non-citizen Mexican-born immigrants participate in politics in other ways, especially in local arenas, such as school boards, through unions, and through the work of many migrant-led organizations to shape city and state policies toward migrants. In the future, we need to pay attention to the impact of the recent wave of mobilization on other forms of civic and political engagement. Specifically, it will be important to observe to what extent these marches will lead to an increase in the interest of Mexican legal permanent residents in becoming full citizens with voting rights.

So far, Mexican migrants have also shown a low degree of formal engagement with Mexican elections as well. In 2005, the Mexican Congress for the first time allowed Mexicans abroad to register to vote in Mexico by absentee ballot. Only a little over one percent of those eligible registered for the 2006 presidential elections—though in international comparative terms, this is apparently normal for first-time diasporic voting. The low registration rate undoubtedly reflects, in part, the numerous procedural challenges involved in the complicated registration process; however, it also suggests that Mexican migrants, though in many cases proud to be able to vote in Mexican elections, may be more focused on immediate concerns in the communities where they live in the United States. More research is needed to disentangle motivations from obstacles.  Nonetheless, the Mexican government has increased its ties to migrants abroad in other ways since the 1990s. This included the creation of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad in 2002, a governmental advisory group on policy related to migrant communities. Although the results of this process are mixed in terms of the Institute’s actual influence on policy decisions, it has certainly served to build a bridge between local migrant leaders and the Mexican government. The Institute’s membership, which is largely elected, also reflects a high degree of civic binationality, insofar as many of these leaders combine deep roots in U.S. civic, social and business organizations with strong ties to migrant organizations and to Mexico.