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 U.S. elections. While border hawks like Trump are wrong about the voting, they’re right about the potential influence of non-citizens on the body politic.
A study published in the June issue of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Journal of the Social Sciences shows how the social dynamics of immigrant populations reveals how civic activism extends beyond casting a ballot. Contrary to the stereotype of immigrants idling around and sponging off benefits, political researchers James McCann and Michael Jones-Correa of Purdue University and University of Pennsylvania argue that although non-citizens, greencard holders and the undocumented may lack the vote, they form a vital public voice.
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.
Since most immigrants of any status have lived in the U.S. for over a decade, the study points out that non-citizens are today “part of how we think of the public, even if not necessarily part of the electorate.”
Survey data from 2006 reflects significant engagement among Latino non-citizens at the grassroots level: “Nearly 80 percent stated that they had participated formally or informally in collective initiatives to solve community problems.” 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.
In multigenerational immigrant households – which are often of mixed legal status – politics tends to run in the family. Surveys show that children of the undocumented, compared with children of immigrants with legal status, display higher rates of political engagement, which is associated with growing up in a home dealing daily with the social consequences of the border.
“Because they’re being spurred on by [their families’] experience… This is an example of how the experience of the undocumented shapes the lives of those around them and shapes the political engagement of those around them,” Jones-Correa says.
McCann and Jones-Correa question what representation means in the current legal system, in which “approximately half of the non-citizen population, even individuals who have resided in the country for many years, have no standing to be represented as co-equal participants in the political community.” And without electoral representation, “In a democratic system, should the preferences and needs of the substantial non-citizen resident population be taken into account?”
After all, immigrants pay taxes, work, get sick and raise kids – deserving a stake in their political communities just like a peer who happened to be born north of the border.
The challenge for policymakers is to create institutions and laws that enable maximum democratic representation.
While the vote is a powerful political action, Jones-Correa says, “It’s not the only thing that people do. And most people in their lives do a lot more than voting… [Voting is] an occasional thing, but we’re citizens all the time, and people engage in politics all the time, whether it’s in their neighborhood, in their schools. In just that way, undocumented immigrants do too.”
You won’t see non-citizens at the polls this November, but that may be the only time you won’t be in their presence.