immigrants and civic engagement

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  • 35Fal l 2005

    Immigrants and Civic EngagementThis article was adapted from Pursuing Demo-cracys Promise: Newcomers Civic Participation inAmerica a report published by GrantmakersConcerned with Immigrants and Refugees in col-laboration with the Funders Committee for CivicParticipation, 2004.

    The immigrant members of the WomensLeadership Group of the Tenants and WorkersSupport Committee (TWSC) in Alexandria,Virginia, came together regularly to discuss commu-nity concerns and the needs of women. Using a tech-nique of popular education to bring issues to thesurface, they drew pictures of community life as theyexperienced it.

    Catalinas drawing of her children playing in thestreet struck an immediate chord among the groupand sparked conversation about the lack of recre-ational space for young people in their neighbor-hood.

    With TWSCs encouragement, the women movedfrom problem identification to analysis and strate-gies that could lead to positive change. They decid-ed to document the conditions, creating a map of allof the playgrounds and outside barbecue grills avail-able to the nine thousand Arlandia residents. Theyfound two of the former (both small), one of the lat-ter. They made a similar map of adjacent, middle-class neighborhoods of single-family homes. Thecontrast was dramatic.

    Next came research. The women studied the budgetof the Alexandria Parks and Recreation Depart-ment; in the study they received support fromTWSC staff, but the research was their responsibili-ty. They found $75,000 that had been set aside butnot yet used for tennis courts.

    Armed with this information and their maps, thewomen sought a meeting with the director of parksand recreation. As a result of their ongoing advoca-cy, over the next few years Parks and Recreationmade more than $100,000 in improvements toArlandia: a new playground, two new public grills,and a multipurpose playing court.

    TWSC is one of a growing number of nonprofitgroups, charities, and organizing efforts that arededicated to the goal of engaging recent immigrantsin American civic life. This democratic experience ofparticipating with others to solve community prob-lems strengthens immigrants, the communities inwhich they live, and the democracy itself.

    Through civic participation organizations, new-comers

    Educate themselves, developing their human cap-ital through acquisition of skills, knowledge, atti-tudes, and behavior

    Build networks of trusting relationships withthose from like and unlike backgrounds, devel-oping the bonding (with the former) andbridging (with the latter) social capital thatsociologist Robert Putnam has argued to beessential to healthy communities

    Contribute to positive outcomes of social change Integrate into American society, a process by

    which they reinvigorate the democracy by par-ticipating in it (as did the ancestors of thenative born)

    Based in community centers or churches, unions orworker centers, neighborhoods or broader commu-nities, civic participation efforts include nationallyaffiliated networks and locally created organiza-tions. Some are ethnicity-centered, some not. Some

    B Y C R A I G M C G A R V E Y

  • 36 Nat ional Civ ic Review

    blend provision of services or advocacy with theircivic participation work. All share a commitment toengaging and empowering immigrants and othersthrough collective problem solving in the democrat-ic process.

    The Demographic Imperative

    There is scarcely a state, city, town, or person in theUnited States unaffected by the demographic changesour country has experienced owing to immigrationin recent decades. The foreign-born populationincreased by almost 1.6 million, or approximately 5percent, in 2001 alone, continuing the record-break-ing volume of the 1990s, when more than 13 millionimmigrants entered the country.

    Approximately 34 million of us, about one in nine,were born outside the United States. Although thetraditional receiving states of California, Texas,Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, and New York contin-ue to attract large numbers, newcomers are noweverywhere. In the thirty-seven states never beforeconsidered as immigrant destinations, the foreign-born population during the 1990s grew at twice therate of these six historic gateways.

    As has been true throughout the history of immigra-tion to the United States, some of these new neigh-bors have come here to escape persecution in theirhomeland. Some have sought to reunify with familymembers. All have come to make a better life fortheir families through hard work.

    Like those who preceded them, newcomers havebecome integral to the economy, where they aremaking important contributions. Immigrantsaccounted for half of all new entries into the U.S.labor force in the 1990s, fueling growth in manyindustries and, according to a 1997 NationalAcademy of Sciences study, adding approximately$10 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

    Immigrants are reinvigorating communities. Intheir book Comeback Cities, Paul Grogan, presi-

    dent of the Boston Foundation and former execu-tive director of Local Initiatives SupportCorporation, and foundation consultant TonyProscio specifically cite newcomer consumers andinvestors for their contribution to the renewal ofthe American inner city. Immigration is the singlemost important factor for dividing winning citiesfrom losing cities, says Grogan.

    Rural communities have been similarly transformed.For example, the increase in the Latino worker pop-ulation from 4 percent in the early 1990s to almost25 percent in 2000 reversed economic decline in thedairy town of Yuma, Colorado, creating new busi-nesses and increasing car sales, consumer loans, andproperty values.

    Elections and Beyond

    Immigrants are also reinvigorating the politicallandscape. Between the elections of 1996 and 2000,as the number of naturalized citizens grew, theforeign-born voting group increased by 20 percent.These immigrants and refugees are establishingthemselves as important swing voters, representinggreat diversity of political outlook across class andgeneration and within generic ethnic categories.

    Beyond casting ballots, newcomers are increasing-ly active broadly in electoral politics, fromregistering voters to running as candidates.Approximately one hundred immigrants andrefugees now hold state-level elected office acrossthe country.

    But the contributions of newcomers in civic partic-ipation do not necessarily start or end with elec-tions. Through collective problem solving,immigrants are making a difference at the commu-nity and policy levels.

    Immigration is the single most important factorfor dividing winning cities from losing cities,says Paul Grogan.

  • 37Fal l 2005

    To take an example, newcomersone in four ofCalifornias populationhave joined actively withthe native-born in the PICO California Project of thePacific Institute for Community Organization,which draws together seventeen PICO affiliatesfrom throughout the state to add the voices and con-cerns of regular Californians to statewide policyimprovement. Organizing in more than seventycities and more than half of the state senate andassembly districts, the California Project representsapproximately 350 congregations and four hundredthousand families.

    Each of the seventeen PICO affiliates is a collabora-tion of congregations promoting civic participationamong residents. While continuing to work togeth-er locally on issues, through the California Projectmembers collectively identify statewide concernsand develop skills and strategies to move policy inthe state capital of Sacramento.

    In 1999, health care was the issue that bubbled upfrom members and coalesced for the project. Anincreasing number of participating families lackedaccess to basic care and were among the seven millionuninsured Californians. The health care campaignwas launched when more than three thousand PICOmembers visited the State Capitol on May 2, 2000.

    Since that time the statewide policy improvements inwhich PICO members played a role have includedsimplification of Medi-Cal reporting, bringing healthcoverage to five hundred thousand additional fami-lies and children, an increase of $50 million to buildand expand community clinics, a commitment to usethe $400 million annual state share of the tobaccosettlement for programs in health care, a $10 millionincrease in annual funding for primary care clinics,and approval by the federal government of the stateswaiver request to add three hundred thousand unin-sured parents to the Healthy Families program.

    In their separate education campaign, members ofthe PICO California Project helped to add $50 mil-

    lion to after-school programs in low-incomeCalifornia neighborhoods and won $30 million forthe countrys first teacher home-visit program. Theyworked with the state treasurer to increaseCalifornias low-income housing tax credit by $20million and, targeting one hundred thousand infre-quent voters in a get-out-the-vote campaign, helpedpass a statewide proposition for $2.1 billion to fundaffordable housing.

    To accomplish these goals, PICO California Projectmembers have learned, among many other skills,how to develop and maintain strong working rela-tionships with elected representatives on both sidesof the aisle and at all levels of government.

    An Age-Old American Story

    The story of such immigrant civic participation isthe story of America. It was immigrants and theirdescendants whom Alexis de Tocqueville wasobserving in the early nineteenth century when hewrote, in Democracy in America, that Americansof all ages, all stations of life, and all types of dispo-sitions are forever forming associations . . . of athousand different types. . . . Nothing, in my view,deserves more attention.

    The Progressive Era, during which so many of thetwenti