Urban Politics and the Assimilation of Immigrant Voters

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the run-up to the contentious presidential election of 2012, the immigrant vote was once again a matter of political concern. There was growing alarm within the Republican Party that their platform on immigration alienated Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the country.1 Conversely, Democrats hoped that their failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform would not dissuade immigrant supporters from going to the polls.2 All the while, efforts to mobilize immigrant voters were unveiled. A broad coalition of immigrant-advocacy organizations announced a massive naturalization drive to help immigrants apply for and gain U.S. citizenship, thus adding them to the voter rolls for the November election.3

The lip service directed towards immigrant voters by both major parties shows just how much the latest wave of immigration has reshaped the demographic landscape of American politics. Yet, as the naturalization drive reveals, immigrants have not fully taken advantage of their political power, and political parties have not been all that active in mobilizing them. Immigrant groups today vote at lower rates than natives.4 They also vote at lower rates than earlier immigrant groups at the midnineteenth and turn of the twentieth century.5 Moreover, there is growing evidence to suggest that immigrant political participation in newer destination cities like Los Angeles, where the immigrant population has exploded in recent decades, is particularly depressed, especially when compared to older gateway cities like New York.6

What accounts for these different rates of political participation? Explanations thus far have largely focused on the immigrants themselves. Legal scholars have turned their attention to how legal rules have redefined the political life of immigrants - from the obstacles they face in naturalizing,7 to the changing significance of citizenship in a world of globalization, temporary residency, and dual citizenship.8 At the same time, social scientists have offered a rich account of the political lives of immigrants by focusing on their individual and group characteristics. Level of education, proficiency with English, cultural norms, and even the political system of their home countries have been used to explain the voting behavior of immigrants today.9

Each of these accounts offers important insights. Yet, the explanation they offer is incomplete. This is because the legal and social characteristics of immigrants today are only one half of the political equation. What has largely been overlooked is the political structure that immigrants face in the United States once they arrive. In other words, in our eagerness to identify how immigrants today are different from those in the past, we have failed to appreciate how the political system has changed as well.

To address this gap, this essay foregrounds political structure in explaining the voting behavior of immigrants in the United States. In particular, it focuses on one aspect of the American political system that is closely intertwined with the political life of immigrants but is often ignored in the immigration literature: big city politics. Immigrant groups have long settled in concentrated residential patterns, and often in America's major cities.10 Moreover, since the early days of industrialization, big city governments have controlled a disproportionate share of the resources and opportunities in American society, raising the stakes of urban politics.11 Given these two dynamics, it is often in big cities that immigrant groups begin to wield political influence, and also translate that influence into tangible gains.12 It is therefore not surprising that few political institutions in the United States have evolved as much in response to immigrant political participation as those that govern the nation's major cities.

Simply stated, my argument is that the disparate political behavior of immigrants corresponds with different eras in urban governance, each of which developed in response to the growing political power of immigrants. …