Non-citizen Latino immigrants may not be able to vote, but they could still help decide the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. That’s a theory posited by two political scientists, Michael Jones-Correa and James A. McCann, in a report published for the Russell Sage Foundation.
Jones-Correa and McCann used a new survey, the Latino Immigrant National Election Study (LINES) to provide data on the political behavior of Latino non-citizens. Their conclusions, along with analysis from other leading scholars, are contained the new edition of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.
Several years ago, in advance of the 2012 election, McCann and Jones-Correa had the idea of doing a survey on the political behavior of immigrants who were not yet citizens, and fielding it at the height of the presidential election.
“This premise might strike some people as odd, but we had the idea that people who live in the U.S. might participate in some way or another in our democratic process,” McCann said.
Because political surveys typically focus on eligible voters and likely voters, McCann explained, non-citizens and the foreign-born are left out of such research by design. Yet approximately one-in-12 residents living in the country, or roughly 25 million, according to McCann, are not citizens (this includes legal as well as undocumented immigrants).
“We have a practice of deliberately not informing ourselves of what is going on with that population,” McCann said, “So we saw a gap and we wanted to correct that gap and be mindful of what is going on. In political science we have responsibility (to study) how much political work is happening and who is paying attention and what are the attitudes out there.”
McCann calls the disparity between the subset of eligible voters and the broader class of the public “the civic status gap.” He believes that, as a social scientist, it is important to get an accurate measure of the political engagement of people who comprise that gap, in order to better understand the public overall.
McCann, a professor of political science at Purdue University, stressed that non-citizens are not engaged in fraudulent voting.
“There is absolutely no evidence that people without voting rights are actually voting in elections. There has been a lot of scrutiny around this idea, but there for all practical purposes this is not happening; the electoral process is not being corrupted by illegal voting.”
Non-citizens, however, are engaged in political behavior. Research by McCann and Jones-Correa found that about one out of three non-citizen Latino immigrants reported attending rallies and marches, helping gather signatures for causes, posting political bumper stickers on their cars or political signs outside their homes, and having political discussions with friends, families, and neighbors.
Based on these observations, McCann and Jones-Correa conclude that Latino immigrants without citizenship rights are not bystanders in the American political process.
“Exclusion from the ballot box,” they write, “is not tantamount to civic silence.”
This data on political behavior matters when social scientists and political theorists take up questions about the nature of democracy, such as whether a lack of voting rights should mean a lack of voice in representation, or whether the needs and views of a substantial noncitizen resident population should be taken into account by the policy-making process. McCann hopes that his research can help inform these discussions, by providing a window into the political behavior of an often-overlooked group of people.
“Our intention is to enrich the discussion and to be thought-provoking and to give an accurate accounting of how much democratic practice is out there,” he said. “The larger question of “Who should count?” is far from settled. Without a good map of what is out there, we might not have as rich a conversation.”
Michael Jones-Correa pointed out that there is more to political engagement than the act of casting a ballot. A professor of government at Cornell University and co-author of Latinos in the New Millenium, he noted that non-citizens are engaged in politics in both direct and indirect ways.
“They may participate directly by marching or posting signs,” he said, “but they also indirectly influence their families through conversations and “convincing.”
They are pushing their friends and neighbors to take political positions, especially around the immigration issues," said Jones-Correa. "And we see this a lot in the many Latino families that are mixed-status.”
One finding from their research was that, among Latino immigrants, women become more liberal and men more conservative over their time in the U.S.
Jones-Correa said that this did not surprise him. “When first immigrating, women have conservative notions of family,” he said. “This changes when they enter the workforce here. They are earning money, perhaps for the first time, experiencing a sense of independence, and taking care of their kids, which can mean interacting with schools, hospitals, and government agencies. This is an upwardly-mobile step in status for them.”
Latino male immigrants, he noted, often experience a drop in their professional status in the U.S. and tend to think more often about returning home than women do.
Another conclusion in the RSF Journal was that, contrary to conventional wisdom, transnational ties often make immigrants more engaged in the U.S. political process, not less.
“The argument used to be either/or; you were either involved in the U.S. or in your country of origin,” said Jones-Correa. “I think there is enough research to show that it is not ‘either/or,’ it is ‘and.’ People who are active in one arena are likely to be active in another. Immigrants who have active ties in their country of origin, are likely to use the same tools to be active and involved in U.S.”
This latest edition of The Russell Sage Foundation Journal will be published on June 28. All of the data collected by Jones-Correa and McCann will then be available on the Russell Sage Foundation website for analysis and study by journalists, researchers, and members of the public.
The Russell Sage Foundation is a nonpartisan organization directly involved in the conduct and dissemination of social science research.
Jones-Correa and McCann also have plans to field a similar study of the political behavior of Latino immigrants in the 2016 election.