By Linda Nwoke
There are over 200 million immigrants all around, making up about 3% of the global population. The number of migrants is increasing as the world’s population increases. Just as the number of countries with borders increases, there is also an increase in the number of migrants.
In the United States, scholars like Wang and Kim 2009 cited that an estimated 38.4 million naturalized immigrants lived in the country. Citing the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, they stated that foreign-born populations increased to nearly 40 million. But by 2019, ten years later, over 44.8 million were recorded.
Many naturalized U.S. citizens are minority immigrants. They had naturalized and gained citizenship status, enabling them to participate in American elections. As immigrants are initially labeled, these’ aliens’ became citizens by following specific rules and procedures for naturalization, unlike anyone born in the United States or whose parents are U.S. citizens.
As citizens, they have the right to participate in governing the nation through the right to vote and be elected to public office.
Role of Immigrants During Election
Generally, elections in America holds every four years, and most citizens, including naturalized immigrants, are eligible to vote. Citizenship remains a crucial component of electoral engagement.
According to Ewing and Cantor, 2014, immigrants and their offspring are becoming more influential in American elections as their numbers grow. Therefore, voting is essential to all immigrants because it is part of being an American. When a person is a native or naturalized citizen, they must register to vote.
Voting achieves three significant objectives – preserving and protecting the country’s constitutional rights, serving as a check on political leaders, and as a source of power for their constituents.
Although in the past, voting was for a selected group. However, vulnerable members of society, including immigrants, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled, are now allowed to vote. Yet, minority groups like both African American and Latino voters continue to experience significant levels of discrimination that impair their ability to vote. Such deters some naturalized immigrants who perceive such discriminatory practices as attempts to silence their voices and prevent them from participating in elections.
Reasons People Vote
In addition to demographic factors, social and psychological aspects also affect electoral participation. Among immigrant communities, once they become citizens, they are encouraged to participate by voting in the American political process, which ensures that elected leaders truly represent their will.
“Beyond fulfilling a constitutional mandate as a naturalized immigrant, I also vote because it makes me feel like I have a voice in the process. I feel empowered and responsible for my life because I participate in making decisions that affect a powerful State or country like the United States of America.”Says Tokunbo Sanyaolu of Staten Island
Others like Dayana Roberts and Francis Jules of Brooklyn, immigrants from the Caribbean, vote out of a deep sense of indebtedness and gratitude. They claim that the country allowed them to start a new beginning while keeping their original culture.
Such encouragement in time has resulted in blacks registering and voting at higher rates than whites in proportion to their population. Other trends include immigrant Latinos registering and voting as much as blacks but more than whites or Asians. For a time, whites tend to vote at higher rates than African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. Additionally, immigrants with lower income and education levels tend to have a lower rate of political participation.
Research studies have identified four reasons that affect an individual’s decision to vote:
- Social and demographic traits
- Psychological resources
- Electoral guidelines
- The mobilization efforts of parties and their candidates
Scholars like Harder and Krosnick (2008) identified education, income, occupation, age, gender, and mobility as some demographic factors that affect voters’ turnout rate. The scholars also mentioned race and residency.
Interestingly, living in a high-status neighborhood encourages people to identify with the political affiliation of that neighborhood and can increase the political participation of the people. Factors like civic duty, habit, political efficacy, and group solidarity also influence participation.
Findings show that minority voters, comprising Blacks and Latinos, are crucial to the outcome of elections in America as their population increases over the years, accounting for more than 4% of the immigrant population in 2013.
Barriers to Minority Voter Participation
In 2008, Harder and Krosnick identified voter participation as influenced by an individual’s social location, psychological dispositions, voting procedures, and surrounding events during the election. Just as subjecting voters to strict registration requirements such as early cutoff dates for registering before an election deters potential voters from the likelihood of registering to vote.
Other scholars mentioned the immigrant’s country of origin, low levels of income, and educational attainment as additional deterrents. Ultimately, failure to participate in the country’s political process means that the interests of the minority, including immigrants, will not be well represented.
However, the new Americans, including Latinos and Asians, are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate of immigrants in New York State, where a quarter of registered voters are immigrants.
Scholars like Ewing and Cantor (2014) refer to the “New Americans” as the naturalized immigrants who are U. S citizens and native-born Americans born to one foreign-born parent after 1965.
Ways of Demanding Change / Accountability
After an election, one way of holding political representatives accountable for the promises made during their campaign is by monitoring the legislators and continued engagement in the political process. In American politics, personal interest or party partisan sometimes affects the political process, superseding the people’s will.
“We know that party interests are what most of our representatives are more concerned about nowadays,” Jullian Ellis said darkly.
In other instances, citizens accuse legislators of voting for their interests instead of catering to the people’s voice—such cause many Americans to practice slacktivism or become uninterested in politics. Therefore, there is no record of any tangible policy change. The consequences are dire for many immigrants because policies that do not cater to immigrants’ peculiar needs often leave them disenfranchised.
However, there are ways to maintain active civic engagement and hold elected representatives accountable:
Showing keen interest and active participation: Publicly engaging in political initiatives to support or oppose a motion often affects elected officials. For instance, initiating and participating in public demonstrations like an open forum, march, or rally can raise awareness about political issues. Other ways to create awareness include starting petitions, email blasts, brochures, and fliers also used for rallies.
For Ana Santiago, a mother of two who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, participating in civic activities helps her feel recognized as a New Yorker. “I have made a new life for myself and my children in New York City,” Ana says. “I want to be able to make our elected representatives make decisions that will favor my children and me. That’s why I participate in rallies and sign petitions.”
Investigating ways to connect with your legislators: Beyond knowing the legislators at the various levels, it is essential to understand how to reach them. Some sites like ‘whoismyrepresentative.com’ commoncause.org help locate and keep track of their activities. You can follow up by calling your representatives’ office numbers and lending your voice to new legislation.
David Jules from Queens says, ” I am active at my child’s school. Through them, I also get to contact and advocate on issues that affect my kids and other legislation of concern to me. I get the number of the representative, call and leave my voice on the issue. It’s that simple, and I feel like I am contributing to forming a policy,” he says.
Attend in-person community events to promote support: Immigrants can participate in speaking events, committee meetings, and other local gatherings organized by your representatives. They can also encourage their family members, friends, and people of similar interests. Nothing trumps the physical interactions because it shows the representatives that you’re involved.
Follow your representative’s performance: Using specific websites like OpenCongress.org, PolitiFact.org, and Opensecret.org, helps you track your representative’s performance in keeping to their original campaign promises. Also, signing up for your legislators’ email alerts and social media platforms enables you to stay abreast of their policy votes.
Solicit contributions: Engage the use of technology like online portals to hear other citizens’ ideas and concerns. For instance, you can organize a forum for community discussions and conversations with other immigrants. Using social media platforms like Facebook groups can also help source ideas and bring up key concerns.
While politicians may often engage in lobbying or other personal interests, civic engagement remains paramount in fostering accountability. Keeping tabs on your legislators and actively participating in the political process is the first step to holding elected officials accountable.
Beyond that, it is essential to be part of the legislation by learning to speak out and building coalitions to solve problems on the various levels – local, state, and federal.
Linda Nwoke is a Senior Writer for The Immigrant’s Journal and a recipient of the CCM’s 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship.