Report Stresses Context as Key Determinant of Latino Immigrant Integration

May 10, 2010

Why are immigrant integration efforts successful in some places and not in others? Why in some cities do even the undocumented feel free to express themselves civically? And yet elsewhere, legal residents and naturalized citizens fear to speak out?

The answer, according to a new report by the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute, is context. Demographic, institutional, and other factors decisively—albeit unevenly—influence integration trends nationwide. And they also frame Latino immigrants' incorporation into U.S. civic and political life—formally, as voters, constituents, and officeholders; but also substantively, as protesters and litigants, and as consumers and workers. Focusing on the period after the 2006 immigrant rights marches, Context Matters: Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement in Nine U.S. Cities argues that local variables—politics, institutions, and history—are the principal determinants of immigrant integration, civic engagement, and naturalization. And it contradicts conventional explanations for such trends based on national origin (Mexicans are unlikely to naturalize; Cubans are) or that presume that immigrants don't care about U.S. civics and politics because they are focused only on Latin America.

Looking at a cross-section of U.S. cities—some with longstanding traditions of immigration (Chicago, IL), others only recent sites of long-term Latino settlement (Omaha, NE; Charlotte, NC)—the report finds compelling commonalities. In all cities, institutions—faith-based groups, the media, organized labor, etc.—were shown to be influential actors, promoting and, in some cases, tempering levels of immigrant political participation. And, across the board, the demographic and geographic contours of immigrant settlement (urban vs. suburban vs. rural) inflected in significant ways the pattern and practice of civic engagement (marching vs. media campaigns or both.)

"Why does context matter so much? Because it shapes the availability of local allies. Where America's churches are open to (Latino immigrants), they engage through their churches, if the unions are open to them, they will organize through unions. If community-based organizations are open to them, they will engage with those groups. If organized youth reach out to immigrant youth, they respond. And if their media reaches out to them, and encourages them to express themselves, to make their voices heard in the policy process, they have the capacity to respond."

--Context Matters coauthor Jonathan Fox

The release of Context Matters comes at a time when the polarizing issue of undocumented immigration is again on the national agenda and when local governments are taking action amid the perception of federal paralysis on the issue, the report notes. Some municipalities and states, such as notably Arizona in April, have passed punitive and restrictive laws this decade, aimed at forcing immigrants out by denying them social services and through newer and tougher enforcement measures. At the same time, the lack of a coherent national policy on integration has meant that other cities, such as San Jose, which is profiled in the report, have had to develop—and find sustained funding for—their own programs of immigrant integration and citizenship promotion. That local governments are taking such matters into their own hands indicates a need for federal guidance and support on immigration policy, the report suggests.

The report is the culmination of a three-year research project by the Project on Latino Immigrant Civic Engagement at the Wilson Center and was made possible through the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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